"A copious and splendid command of language and an ear tuned to the 'noiseless music of the spheres.'" Elite Education in the Romantic Period and Its Modern Uses in Teaching and Scholarship

This article offers fresh and detailed information about how the elite schools and colleges of Oxford and Cambridge educated many of the canonical writers and public men of the Romantic Period. While these schools excluded women and non-Anglicans, they offered their students—among whom numbered Percy, Cowper, Darwin, Crabbe Wordsworth, Coleridge, Southey, Byron, Shelley, Sidney Smith, Canning, and most of the clergymen and men of state—a remarkable program of linguistic, mathematical, and theological training. Students began composing metrical verse in Latin and Greek from boyhood, studied logic and read Euclid’s geometry in Greek, did copious amounts of memory work, wrote “themes” several times a week in three languages, and declaimed and argued publicly at least once a year. Understanding how these writers were educated offers scholars of the period several new ways to think about and teach the works of those writers and the movement they inspired. It also allows students of the period to have greater appreciation of Romantic writers’ craft and their own experiences of learning about language, literature, and composition.

“A copious and splendid command of language and an ear tuned to the ‘noiseless music of the spheres.’” Elite Education in the Romantic Period and Its Modern Uses in Teaching and Scholarship

1.        Understanding how writers of the English Romantic Period were educated offers modern professors studying the period several new ways to think about and teach the works of those writers and the movement they inspired. It also allows students studying the period to have greater appreciation for Romantic writers’ craft and their own experiences of learning about language, literature, and composition. Formal education between the years 1770 and 1850 was neither well organized nor widely available in England. Working class children might have had the benefit of no more than a few years of instruction in reading, writing, and arithmetic; they were considered “literate” even if they could do nothing more than write their names. The daughters of the middle and upper classes might be taught at home by their fathers, public-school educated brothers, or governesses, and later sent away to ladies’ seminaries to improve their reading and writing skills and to learn French, music, drawing, dancing, and fine stitchery. University education was out of the question for English girls until late in the Victorian Period, though some studied ancient Greek privately and used it to publish translations of Greek tragedies. [1]  The sons of these families—many of whom are among the canonized poets of the period—were more fortunate. They were sent away to one of the great public schools, such as Eton or Harrow, or to one of the endowed grammar schools, such as Hawkshead or Chesterfield Grammar, which prepared them for study at Oxford or Cambridge. Boys were packed off to these schools no later than age thirteen; some boys were enrolled as young as age eight. Wordsworth was nine when his father sent him to Hawkshead Grammar School; he boarded nearby with Ann Tyson for eight years. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was ten when he was sent to Christ’s Hospital. Horace Walpole boarded at Eton for seven years; Shelley was there for six; Byron was at Harrow for five. With the exception of Shelley, all of these students subsequently attended Oxford or Cambridge for at least three years. [2]  These institutions taught these writers and many other middle- and upper-class boys in their audience most of what they knew about the meanings, sounds, and use of language in texts. These schools and university colleges were where many poets became remarkably well-acquainted with literary forms, the art of writing, and the Western literary canon.

2.        Instruction at these elite schools focused on language. Youngsters began building a rich classical vocabulary, first in Latin, later in Greek, through guided reading, translation, memory work, recitation, and conversation. Students read verse in these languages every day, and at least three days a week they were required to compose verse and prose in them as well. Schoolmasters typically chose classical verse or discourses that were intentionally didactic, such as Cicero’s epistles to his son and Quintilian’s lessons on how to be “a good man . . . speaking well” (Bizell and Herzberg 323–24). In addition to these circumstances, it is important to note that all the teachers at these elite institutions were Oxford- or Cambridge-educated Anglican clergymen and that every day school and college began and ended with communal celebration of the Morning and Evening Prayer services. Moreover, teaching and learning at these institutions were quite personal: schoolmasters lived, ate, and worshiped with their students. Tutors at the two ancient English universities, which had a combined enrollment of only 1250 students in 1800, also resided, shared commons, and worshiped in college with their students. Romantic-era tutors were college fellows, and each worked individually with a small group of students from the day they entered as freshmen. Tutors designed and guided students’ reading, according to each one’s personal aspirations, in readiness for the college exams. If a student was clever and ambitious, his tutor’s job included helping him prepare for the much more competitive university exams that typically lead to fellowships and a career in academia or the church. Tutors were responsible as well for students’ behavior, belongings, and personal financial affairs. Added to these circumstances, it was not unusual for students to be in the presence of members of the royal family, bishops, and other statesmen, for these individuals were often guests of honor at festivities held at the schools. University Chancellors were statesmen or high-ranking men of court, and both universities elected their own Members of Parliament. This collection of academic, religious, and social practices at the schools and universities helps clarify why Coleridge thought of poets and other learned people as members of a clerisy and why Shelley claimed that poets are the legislators of the world. It also explains why Wordsworth asserted in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads that that poets are translators and why he wrote his friend George Beaumont that “Every great Poet is a Teacher: I wish either to be considered as a Teacher, or as nothing” (De Selincourt Letters, 195).

3.        I have recently completed a book, tentatively titled Training for the Writer's Life in Anglo-classical Academy, 1770–1850. From a pedagogical perspective, the two most notable findings of my research are how the Romantics were taught Latin and Greek “grammar,” which included not only vocabulary building and syntax, but also memory work and explicit daily instruction about the sound and rhythms of language, and how much writing students were required to do each week. With regard to the possible influences this education may have had upon the Romantics’ formal or thematic choices, one of the most interesting findings was how familiar students became with a wide range of verse forms—from heroic couplets to epics. Daily reading and instruction using scripture and the elegantly ordinary language of the Book of Common Prayer was also an important aspect of this education thanks to the Lectionary of the BCP; every month students read all 150 psalms, and in a year’s time, they read through the entire New Testament. [3] In this essay, after briefly explaining typical Romantic-period pedagogies and curricula, I will suggest a number of assignments modern professors of the Romantic Period might use to help their students have a richer appreciation of the word choice, linguistic register, music, formal choices, and attitudes or themes that appear in poems written by poets who had the privilege of this elite classical education.

Classical “Grammar”

4.        Educators in the Romantic Period believed along with the Scottish poet James Beattie that a person must be “something of a grammarian to be able thoroughly to understand a well-written book . . . [for] the complicated inflexions and syntax of these elegant tongues [give] rise to innumerable subtleties of connection, and minute varieties of meaning, whereof the superficial reader, who thinks grammar below his notice can have no idea” (508–9). Hence, the focus of the first years at school in the Romantic Period was Latin “grammar,” which began with boys learning words in Latin along with instruction in how to use them. These included “the art of spelling; . . . parts of speech, with their accidents and formations; . . . the construction of words into sentences, according to their several relations to each other . . .; and . . . the quantity of syllables and their arrangement in versification” (The Eton Latin Grammar 3). The methods schoolmasters used to build students’ grammar skills began with explaining and demonstrating the meanings of clusters of Latin words that appeared in simple verse texts by writers such as Ovid and Terence. Teachers attended not only to the meanings and proper grammatical use of words, but also, significantly, to the accents and the quantities (the longs and shorts) of each syllable. Every night for homework boys memorized the verses, vocabulary, and grammar rules covered in class. The next day, they recited and reviewed the previous lesson, read more lines of verse, and learned new words and grammar rules. This sequence would be repeated every day, with review on Fridays and Saturdays. [4] 

5.        The most common texts used in the lower forms were Ovid’s Metamorphoses, composed entirely in dactylic hexameter; Terence’s verse comedies; and Phaedrus’s Latin verse translations of Aesop’s fables. Beattie noted that reading these “harmonious” and “amusive” stories as a youngster both awakened and soothed his “human passions” (497). After a few weeks, boys were asked to compose their first themes, which were nonsense verses, comprised of strings of Latin words that fit simple metrical patterns. The lines of words did not have to make sense; they simply had to demonstrate the boys’ knowledge of the pronunciation of the words and the metrical patterns they were learning. Pupils might be asked to compose these themes several times a week. Once boys had large enough vocabularies, their teachers required them to write verse themes that made sense. As mentioned above and also detailed below, by the time a boy was thirteen or fourteen, he was composing verse and prose themes every week.

6.        Usually by their second or third year at school, students were reading much more complicated Latin verse and had begun studying Greek in the same fashion. [5]  A fifth-form student at any of these schools might be asked in one week’s time to read, parse, memorize, and write translations of approximately 150 lines of Homer, sixty lines of Horace, seventy lines of Virgil, and assorted passages from writers such as Aeschylus, Euripides, Pindar, Sappho, and Cicero, as well as the Book of Psalms and the Old and New Testaments. The standard text at virtually all the public schools, grammar schools, and the universities was Virgil’s Aeneid. This text gave students the occasion to study some of the classical world’s finest examples of dactylic hexameter and to consider themes that became important in public discourse when the young Romantics were adults, such as national pride, free will, the different forms of power, and love of home and family. Students at both levels also read the four books of Virgil's Georgics, which are long didactic poems about country life. Written in an unsettled time, not unlike that of the Romantics, these texts praise natural beauty, the virtues of country life, and rural labor. As Kenneth Johnson has aptly noted, they also rehearse the notion of “rural republican virtue checking urban imperial excess” (72).

7.        Along with Virgil, students in the Romantic period read almost all of Horace’s verse epistles and odes. [6] These poems, which most often focus upon topics such as love, friendship, and poetry, accustomed students to the tempo of heroic couplets, well-turned alcaics and sapphics, [7] rhythmically smooth hexameter, and precise word choice. Additionally, many of Horace’s works represent a culturally significant figure that mattered to the parents of schoolboys and college students: the ideal gentleman, whom the classical scholar Ogilvie characterizes as a wise and humane man who endeavors to see the world with humor rather than bitterness and who advocates for moderation and the moral health of the state (49–50). Students in the Romantic Period also studied Hesiod’s Works and Days, Epictetus’s serious and Lucian’s comic dialogues, Theocritus’s bucolic poetry, Callimachus’s epigrams and elegies, and Longinus’s literary criticism. These readings acquainted Romantic-era students with the Greeks’ characteristic exaltation of honor, heroism, and loyalty; their love of freedom, beauty, and the countryside; and Longinus’s dictum that sublime discourse should transport as well as persuade by using “great conceptions, . . . inspired passion, . . . noble diction, . . . and dignified and elevated composition” (Longinus, quoted in Richter 84).

8.        By the time a boy graduated from one of these schools, he had learned to recognize and use a variety of metrical feet, not just iambs, trochees, spondees, anapests, and dactyls, but also trisyllables such as amphibrachs (˘–˘) and molossi (–––) and tetrasyllables such as the four paeons and the choriamb (–˘˘–). [8]  Teachers also, no doubt, explained three metrical conventions that are standard in classical Latin—the accentuation of the final foot, an extrametrical final syllable, and the common use of moraic trochees. [9] The schools’ regimen of vocabulary building, parsing, translating and memorizing acquainted students quite intimately not only with these metrical tools, but also with an array of verse forms including pastoral verse such as georgics, idylls, and eclogues; lyrics such as odes, hymns, psalms, and paeans; narratives such as epics, epyllia (mini-epics), comedies, tragedies, and tragi-comedies; verse epistles, satire, allegories, elegies, encomia, invectives, and epigrams. The Cambridge classicist, Richard Rutherford, asserts that the ancient writers whom Romantic-era school boys studied so closely were “always conscious of what they [were] writing, and what kind of work it [was]”; both “the artists and the critics [of the ancient world] regularly [referred] to generic rules and expectations” (11). Hence, from an early age, English students understood that good writing was systematic and that an educated person should be able to recognize and appreciate literary forms and conventions.

Memory Work, Translation, and Themes

9.        Underlying most of the Georgian schools’ work with younger boys was the notion that “the instruction of childhood depends more on memory than intellect” (Sergeaunt 30). [10] The lessons described above were designed to capitalize on children’s remarkable memories, imitative skills, and their ability to pick up language quickly. Knox asserted that a boy “habituated to the task [of memory work] will learn thirty or forty lines, as an evening exercise, with great ease, and with apparent pleasure. This is really done,” he said, “three or four nights in a week, in our best schools” (99). Assisted by their natural sense of rhythm and the patterns of verse that they were learning, many students easily memorized hundreds of lines of Latin and Greek verse. Schoolmasters also appealed to youngsters’ natural competitiveness when assigning memory work. Boy battles over who could memorize the most lines were not uncommon. When Arnold studied at Winchester, he was reputed to have memorized three thousand lines of Homer (Clarke 54). [11] Coleridge’s nephew Edward reports that when he was at Eton, he memorized and recited nearly all of the satires of Juvenal, the whole of Euripides’ Alcestis, and Aeschylus’s Prometheus Vinctus by heart. Charles Merivale, the grandson of Byron’s headmaster at Harrow, memorized Virgil’s Eclogues and Georgics and most of Catullus, Juvenal, and Lucan.

10.        Thomas Arnold, who was no friend of meaningless busy work, marveled at the vigor of youthful memory and defended the schools’ use of memorization exercises. George Chapman, the headmaster of the grammar school at Dumfries, Scotland, commented that memorized texts make a deeper and more lasting impression on students’ minds than texts that students simply read and put aside. Knox said a boy is benefited by having a great number of words and phrases “enforced upon the sensorium” and “laid up in the storehouse of his memory” (101). [12] Coleridge comments in the Biographia Literaria on the wisdom of “storing the memory, during the period when the memory is the predominant faculty, with facts for the after exercise of the judgment” (Halmi 383). He also credited memory exercises at school with awakening in him “the fond and unmixed LOVE and ADMIRATION” of literature (Halmi 383). While a student at Eton, Winthrop Mackworth Praed (1802–1839) [13] commented in the student magazine that the effect of reading and memorizing classical poetry, drama, and satire gave him a “copious and splendid command of language” and an “ear tuned up . . . to the ‘noiseless music of the spheres’” (The Etonian 102). He also maintained that the experience of memorizing great literature gave poets “prototypes” to “impregnate with the living soul and breath of [their own] Imagination” (102). Critics and, indeed, writers themselves may never be entirely sure of the degree to which the content, language, or rhythms of any text are original, recalled, or a mix of both; but understanding the degree to which memory work was a part of the Romantics’ education should be useful to scholars, particularly those interested in the composition process, influence studies, or the trajectory of certain writer’s careers. For example, Coleridge’s issues with plagiarism or Wordsworth’s valorization of those “sublime” moments when memory helps a person “see into the life of things” might be assessed in new ways in the light of this information.

11.        As noted above, Romantic-era schoolboys were assigned compositions several times every week. Along with their nonsense verses, students’ earliest writing assignments were translations: first of the easy verses of Ovid, but later of much more complicated classical and/or biblical texts in Latin and Greek. Students were instructed to avoid word-for-word translations and, instead, to express the sense, verbal register, and style of the original text in idiomatic English. As a Rugby student explained, this was excellent writing practice because it excused boys from having to come up with original ideas but gave them practice constructing sentences or lines of verse that demonstrated careful word choice, that were grammatically correct, and that adhered to accepted literary conventions. Boys called upon these translation exercises and their memory work as well as their fulsome experience reading a variety of literary forms to complete their many writing assignments.

12.        In the 1790s a typical week of compositions for the fifth form at Rugby included four themes, at least two of which would be Latin or Greek verses; a translation in English from a text in one of these languages; and a piece of verse or prose in English. Examples of the verse topics Thomas Arnold assigned include: Porcia, Catonis Filia, Bruti Uxor (Portia, the daughter of Cato and wife of Brutus) and Africa, bonarum atrium nutrix, nunc barbarie premitur (Africa, once the nurse of benign skills, is now barbarically oppressed). His prose theme assignments ranged from essays on miracles to realistic descriptions of the state of affairs for residents of the continent in the summer of 1815. A typical week at Tonbridge Grammar School included assignments to write a short ode in Greek, twenty lines of iambic pentameter, a letter home in English, and a collection of Latin verse epigrams, each with a different topic. The amount of daily and weekly practice Romantic period schoolboys had using words, thinking about the meanings and sounds of words, and composing various verse and prose forms is remarkable. By one calculation, a boy who spent six years in boarding school might have translated as many as six thousand lines of Latin or Greek prose and 4800 lines of Latin or Greek verse. This youngster would have also written ninety prose essays and as many as 4200 lines of verse (the equivalent of 300 sonnets).

13.        Romantic-era educators’ defense of requiring so much verse composition took several forms. Themes were assigned not only to ensure boys appreciated quantities of Latin words “without knowledge of which [they] will not be able to read Latin with propriety” (Knox 60), but also to make sure boys learned to be precise and to waste no words. Edward Copleston, the Professor of Poetry at Oxford, asserted in 1810 that educators did not give verse assignments because they expected students to produce original verse, but because “the poetic faculty exists to a certain degree in all minds and should not lie uncultivated in any” (129). Moreover, writing verse teaches the “habit of compression without obscurity, . . . of selecting the fittest materials . . . setting them in the nicest order . . . and a command of pure, terse, polished diction” (Copleston 131). Producing lines of meaningful Latin in specified meters, teachers explained, helped to tune students’ “ears to harmony” and to afford them “greater pleasure in reading poetry” (Sergeant 31). In the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge remarks that his contemporaries’ admirable ability to “translate . . . prose thoughts into poetic language had been kept up by, if it did not wholly arise from, the custom of writing Latin verses, and [by] the great importance attached to these exercises in our public schools” (388).

14.        Not a few public and grammar school students, including Wordsworth, Byron, and Percy Shelley, began writing and publishing English verse while in school, and several recognized their calling as poets at school. In the Biographia Literaria, Coleridge says that he learned from his headmaster, James Boyer, that no word, “phrase, metaphor, or image [in a poem should be] unsupported by a sound sense,” and that “plainer words,” which can impart the same sense with “force and dignity,” are to be preferred (381). [14] In Book Fifth of the 1805 Prelude, Wordsworth describes the “deep joy” he received while a student at Hawkshead when he encountered “the mystery of words” in the works of the “mighty [classical] poets” and how they worked “their changes” (V.617, 621, 619, 623). Wordsworth notes as well that he came to understand then how poetry works, and that “forms and substances are circumfused” not only by “light divine,” but also “through the turnings intricate of verse” (V.625–27).

15.        Among the books used to help Romantic period students with their study and writing of poetry was John Newbery’s Poetry Made Familiar and Easy (1776). Newbery asserts that “Poetry’s task, since the earliest Ages of the World,” is to “celebrate the Praises of the GREAT AUTHOR of the Universe” (ii). Its whole aim and intention are “to please and to instruct” by borrowing from “Nature every thing that is gay and delightful” and adorning its “Diction with Number and Harmony,” and by employing “the Marvellous and Pathetic in their proper Places” (v–vi). Newbery defines the “true Poet” as one who is

distinguished by a fruitfulness of Invention, a lively Imagination tempered by solid judgment, and Nobleness of Sentiments and Ideas, and bold, lofty, and figurative Manner of Expression. He thoroughly understands the Nature of his Subject; and [regardless of the length of his poem], he forms a Design or Plan, by which every Verse is directed to a certain End, and each has a just Dependance on the other. (8)
Examples of instruction such as this suggest that some of the Romantics’ most famous statements about poetry, the poet, his imagination, and his embrace of the natural world were not as original to them as scholars have assumed.

16.        So how might modern teaching scholars use this information about how the Romantics’ classical education endeavored to raise young men with “A copious and splendid command of language and an ear tuned to the ‘noiseless music of the spheres’” (The Etonian 102)? For starters, we would do well to redouble our efforts to train students in close reading, to remind them to attend to word choice (including the etymology of key words), and to metrical matters in Romantic verse. New source and influence studies, particularly ones that examine Greek and Latin pastoral verse and the religious texts students read, including the Book of Common Prayer, are also indicated. In the spirit of this issue of Romantic Circles Pedagogies Commons, I offer the following categories and proposed class assignments or research projects, which range from close reading to thematic studies. When I assign the projects suggested below, I begin with a lecture on how the Romantics were trained, using the information explained above, and discussion on the importance of understanding the contexts and constraints under which writers labored. I also remind students that many in the Romantic audience possessed similar literary and linguistic knowledge. These assignments will, of course, require some revision based upon local curricula and individual professors’ teaching plans and their style of assignment-writing.

Etymology Exercises

17.        I suggest that professors begin by explaining that educated Romantics were trained in the classical languages from which English evolved. Students could recognize if a word were derived from Latin, Greek, German, Old or Middle English, then follow this plan:

Step 1: Working in pairs, ask students to select a passage from an early poem by Wordsworth, such as the first ten lines of "An Evening Walk," which describe the countryside of the English Lake District. Then ask them to look up the etymology of the key words in these lines in the Oxford English Dictionary. (They are almost all from Old or Middle English, not Latin. In my view, this is no accident.) Ask each pair of students to discuss these word choices and then to present their findings to the class.

Step 2: Ask students to do the same etymological work with a much later work that focuses upon another place, such as one of the poems about Rome in "Memorials of A Tour in Italy, 1837." The question for discussion might be, What differences in word choice do you notice?

Step 3: Ask students to compare word choice in a series of lyrics by classically educated poets and those who were not, such as Charlotte Smith and John Clare, to see what meaningful patterns emerge.

Prosody Exercises

18.        A lesson on Romantic prosody should begin with an explanation of how students were trained to recognize the music of language, the quantities of syllables, and conventional metrical requirements of particular verse forms. Then students should be reminded that students wrote verse every week, and this exercise ensured that they both understood meter and had learned to use it skillfully. Ask your students, out of respect for this tradition, to start paying more attention to the Romantics’ metrical efforts. Then I suggest the following series of assignments:

Step 1. Begin this series of exercises with a lesson about prosody that reviews the different feet, the line lengths, the notion of metrical contracts, and the purposes of metrical variation. Some of this will be quite foreign and confusing to students. If this goes well, add a brief survey of the metrical conventions of the genres that the Romantics knew well, such as the epic, the pastoral, the ode, and the heroic couplet. Good sources for these matters are Paul Fussell’s Poetic Meter and Poetic Form; John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason, a Guide to English Verse; Timothy Steele’s All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing; Ellen Stauder’s online Interactive Tutorial On Rhythm Analysis used at Reed College, which cites Derek Attridge’s method of scansion among others; [15] and various works by Reuven Tsur. [16] 

Step 2. Follow these lessons with a close metrical analysis of an easy, regular poem, such as Wordsworth’s "I wandered lonely as a cloud"; it is very regular iambic tetrameter until line 6, where the first significant variation occurs: “Flut’ring and dancing in the breeze,” a move that emphasizes the liveliness of the daffodils (De Selincourt 149).

Step 3. Next try the same exercise on Wordsworth’s "We Are Seven"; it uses alternating lines of tetrameter and trimeter, but the pattern is not clear until stanza three. I suggest that you acknowledge this and then ask students to start their scanning practice with stanza three, noting where and how Wordsworth varies the meter elsewhere in the poem. Then ask students why Wordsworth might have chosen to begin the poem with stanzas that vary the metrical pattern that he later uses throughout most of the rest of his poem.

Step 4. If this exercise goes well, challenge students to have a go at a passage from "Tintern Abbey" in De Selincourt’s Poeticial Works. I suggest starting in stanza four in the middle of line 88 at “For I have learned / To look on nature, not as in the hour / Of thoughtless youth,” and stopping at the end of the stanza with these words: “the nurse / The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul / Of all my moral being” (De Selincourt, lines 109–10). I ask them to look for the lines that are pure iambic pentameter versus the ones where Wordsworth varies the accents. The question, again, is as follows: What is accomplished by the metrical variations?

For students wishing to pursue the subject of meter in English poetry further, you might suggest that they read Meredith Martin’s The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860–1930. Though the period she focuses upon is later, her discussion of how meter offers insight into issues such as class, identity (both personal and national), and patriotism is compelling.

Form Study

19.        A third possible close reading exercise, once students have reviewed classical forms such as the ode or georgics and the English sonnet tradition, challenges students to examine the Romantics’ management of literary forms and conventions. Even though sonnets are not a classical form, I include them because trying to do this exercise with longer poems is hard for some undergraduates. Any of the odes by Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats as well as well-known pastoral verses or georgics of the period that students might select themselves are good for such work. I also suggest asking students to compare sonnets by several Romantics, at least two of whom were not classically trained. Wordsworth’s "Prefatory Sonnet" (it serves a double purpose of introducing the form with its tight structure and of representing Wordsworth’s style), Coleridge’s "Work Without Hope," Keats’ "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer," Byron’s "Sonnet on Chillon," Shelley’s "Lift not the painted veil," and Charlotte Smith’s "To Night" all work well. I invite the class to compare each poet’s handling of structure and metrics and to discuss how these contribute to the impact and fluidity of the lines. The question for discussion is as follows: Are the poems by classically trained poets noticeably different? When students find differences, I challenge them to rank the effectiveness of each poet’s aesthetic and formal choices and to explain their rationale for their ranking.

More Advanced Formal Study for Graduate Students or Those with a Background in Latin or Greek

20.        A graduate student with a classical background might be encouraged to undertake comparative study of odes by Pindar and Coleridge for an article or thesis. I have not tried this yet, but I yearn to challenge graduate students to select examples of one of the victory odes (epinikia) of Pindar, which, as Rutherford aptly notes, are “highly poetic, full of compounds, unusual words, and florid metaphors” and which discourse on the theme of “ambition for fame in spite of risk” (178–79). The tasks would be for students to map those compounds, odd words, and metaphors, and then to compare Byron’s use of compounds, odd words, and metaphors in one of the cantos of Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage. A similarly classic-focused exercise would be to introduce senior majors in a Wordsworth seminar to Clancey’s book about Wordsworth’s classical training, Wordsworth's Classical Undersong: Education, Rhetoric, and Poetic Truth. Ask students to compare one of the passages from Horace (in translation) to a text by Wordsworth. After they have done the work, have students read Clancey’s discussion of the same texts and see if they have been able to replicate any of his analysis.

Rehearsals of Romantic Pedagogy

21.        After reviewing the information about the Romantics’ education above, it could be particularly eye-opening for modern students to be invited to study texts the way the Romantics did. This project might involve the following sequence:

Step 1. Remind the class what the Rugby student, quoted above, said about the value of translation work and then ask them to “translate” several short verse texts by the Romantics into prose. This would work well with Coleridge’s "Kubla Khan" or with some of the confusing stanzas in "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner." Shelley’s and Keats’s sonnets, because they are shorter, would work for this exercise as well.

Step 2. Have students select a Romantic poet they admire and three or four of his or her poems. Ask them to read each text closely—checking the etymology of key words, parsing the grammar, translating the poems into prose, memorizing at least one of the poems, and drawing conclusions about the poet, the poems, and the experience of studying them this way. This exercise could be expanded into a term project, in which students select more poems and prepare a class presentation, starting with a recitation of a representative poem.

Step 3. To give students a chance to experience the composition training schoolboys at Romantic period public schools received, have them write as often as Romantic-era students did for two weeks. Assuming a Monday, Wednesday, Friday class schedule, ask them to compose lines of verse for two classes each week; on the third day of the week discuss the experience and what it taught them about the composition process in a short essay (the Romantic educator would call it a theme). Possible verse assignments could be a short lyric in tetrameter such as "I wandered lonely as a cloud," ten heroic couplets, a sonnet or sonnet sequence, and an imitation of a selected Romantic text.

Poets on Poetry

22.        Ask students to review what Newbery said about poetry, cited above. Then ask them to compare that to what Wordsworth wrote about poetry in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, to what Coleridge said in Biographia Literaria, or to what Keats said in his letters.

Thematic Studies

23.        In addition to the assignments suggested above, professors might select one of the theme-orientated exercises below.

(1) Discuss national pride or free will as depicted in Virgil’s Aeneid and in poems on the same topics by Shelley and Byron.

(2) Discuss the treatment in Virgil’s Georgics of the virtues of country life and rural labor and poems on the same subjects by Wordsworth. Compare your findings to work by John Clare on the same theme. He knew the agricultural scene even more intimately than Wordsworth and was not classically educated.

(3) Have students read the Anglican liturgies for Morning and Evening Prayer, select a week in the school year, consult the Lectionary in the Book of Common Prayer, and have students note the scriptures that would have been part of the services that week. Then ask students to find at least three Romantic poems that discuss themes such as sin and/or forgiveness. Challenge them to find the psalms and gospel texts that treat these themes and then compare language and approach.

(4) Compare Horace’s notion of the ideal gentleman to characters in Jane Austen’s novels or to Robert Walton, Victor Frankenstein, his father, and/or his friend Henry Clerval.

(5) Review the Romantics’ memory training as youngsters, research what modern cognitive scientists know about memory, and then collect and discuss Romantic-era poems about memory.

To conclude, each of these assignments might disrupt your usual method of studying Romantic texts, but all can help modern students gain fresh insights into the lives and work of the Romantics and into their own learning and writing experiences. Asking our students to write as often for class as the Romantic schoolboys did will teach them what a difference practice and revision can make in their own compositions. Knowing what Romantic schoolboys and college students were trained to do with words and literary forms and how central linguistic and metrical issues were to those students’ early experience with literature will support modern professors’ requests that their students pay greater attention to close reading, word choice, and meter. This information also underscores how important it is, in general, to consider texts in their historical context. Knowing how intensively and carefully many of the Romantic writers worked on poetry as schoolboys helps modern students to appreciate why Wordsworth claimed to have “acquired a greater readiness and power in expressing what he thinks and feels” because he had learned that the situation of an accomplished poet “is altogether slavish and mechanical” (Preface to Lyrical Ballads in De Selincourt 734–41). These circumstances also explain why Wordsworth claimed to have a “sublime notion of poetry” (738). Finally, the story of the Anglo-classical tradition in Romantic-era schools and colleges may even make some modern students jealous of the Romantics’ richly stocked memories and sensoria and inspire them to study classical languages.

Works Cited

Anonymous. The Etonian, No. 2., 1787.

Beattie, James. Essays on Poetry and Music . . . And on the Utility of Classical Learning. William Creech, 1776.

Bizzell, Patricia and Bruce Herzberg. The Rhetorical Tradition. 2nd ed., Bedford/St. Martin's, 2001.

Chapman, George. A Treatise on Education, with a Sketch of the Author's Method. Enlarged edition, 1784.

Clancey, Richard. Wordsworth's Classical Undersong: Education, Rhetoric, and Poetic Truth. St. Martin's Press/Palgrave, 2000.

Clarke, M. L. Classical Education in Britain 1500–1900. Cambridge UP, 1959.

Copleston, Edward. A Reply to the Calumnies against Oxford by the Edinburgh Review Containing an Account of the Studies Pursued at That University. Oxford UP, 1810.

De Selincourt, Ernest, editor. The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, II the Middle Years, Part II 1812–1820. 2nd ed., Clarendon, 1970.

———. Wordworth Poetical Works, with Introductions and Notes. Oxford UP, 1974.

Fussell, Paul. Poetic Meter and Poetic Form. Revised Edition, McGraw-Hill 1979.

Gill, Stephen. William Wordsworth, a Life. Oxford UP, 1990.

———, editor. William Wordsworth, the Major Works. Oxford UP, 1984.

Graver, Bruce. "Classical Inheritances." Romanticism an Oxford Guide, edited by Nicholas Roe, Oxford UP, 2005.

Halmi, Nicholas and Raimonda Modiano Paul Magnuson, editors. Coleridge's Poetry and Prose. Norton, 2004.

Hollander, John. Rhyme's Reason, a Guide to English Verse. Yale Nota Bene, 2001.

Holmes, Richard. Shelley, the Pursuit. Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1974.

Hopkins, David and Charles Martindale, editors. The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature. Vol. 3 (1660–1790). Oxford UP, 2012.

Johnston, Kenneth R. The Hidden Wordsworth. Poet, Lover, Rebel, Spy. Norton, 1998.

Knox, Vicesimus. Liberal Education: Or, a Practical Treatise on the Methods of Acquiring Useful and Polite Learning. C. Dilly, 1781.

Martin, Meredith. The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860–1930. Princeton UP, 2012.

Morgan, Nathaniel. Grammaticae Quaestiones: Or a Grammatical Examination, by Question Only: For the Use of Schools; Particularly Those Where the Eton Grammar Is Taught. S. Hazard, 1794.

Newbery, John. Poetry Made Familiar and Easy and Embellished with a Great Variety of Epigrams, Epitaphs, Songs, Odes, Pastorals, & from the Best Authors. 4th ed., T. Carnan and F. Newbery, 1776.

Ogilvie, R. M.. Latin and Greek. A History of the Influence of the Classics on English Life from 1600 to 1918. Archon Books, 1969.

Prins, Yopi. Ladies' Greek: Victorian Translation of Tragedy. Princeton UP, 2017.

Richter, David H, editor. The Critical Tradition. Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends. 2nd ed., Bedford Books, 1998.

Rutherford, Ricahrd. Classical Literature a Concise History. Blackwell, 2005.

Sargeaunt, John. Annals of Westminster School. Methuen, 1898.

Stauder, Ellen. "Stauder’s Interactive Tutorial on Rhythm Analysis."https://www.reed.edu/english/intra/

Steele, Timothy. All the Fun's in How You Say a Thing, an Explanation of Meter and Versification. Ohio UP, 1999.

Tsur, Reuven. "Poetic Rhythm: Performance Patterns and Their Acoustic Correlates." Versification 1, 1977.

———. Poetic Rhythm: Structure and Performance—an Empirical Study in Cognitive Poetics. Peter Lang, 1998.

———. Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics. Sussex Academic Press, 2008.

Vance, Norman and Jennifer Wallace, editors. The Oxford History of Classical Reception in English Literature. Vol. 4 (1790–1880). Oxford UP, 2015.

Wordsworth, William. The Prelude: 1799, 1805, 1850. Edited by Jonathan Wordsworth, M. H. Abrams, and Stephen Gill. Norton, 1979.


[1] Even then, young women could attend lectures, but were not permitted to earn the BA from Oxford or Cambridge until the 20th century. Some colleges at both universities did not become fully co-educational until the 1980s. BACK

[2] Among the other poets who were educated at what might be called the “Anglo-classical academy” were poets such as Thomas Warton (1728–1790), Thomas Percy (1729–1811), William Cowper (1731–1800), Erasmus Darwin (1731–1802), George Crabbe (1754–1832), George Dyer (1755–1841), William Lisle Bowles (1762–1850), William Wordsworth (1770–1850), Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772–1834), Robert Southey (1774–1843), Lord Byron (1788–1824), Percy Shelley (1792–1822), and Thomas Dale (1797–1870). Others writers and important intellectuals of the period were similarly educated as well: This group includes John Wesley (1703–1791), David Hartley (1705–1757), Samuel Johnson (1709–1784), Horace Walpole (1717–1797), Adam Smith (1723–1790), William Gilpin (1724–1804), Henry Cavendish (1731–1810), John Horne Took (1734–1812), Thomas Haweis (c. 1734–1820), Edward Gibbon (1737–1794), Joseph Banks (1743–1820), William Paley (1743–1805), Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), Vicesimus Knox (1752–1821),Thomas Gisborne (1758–1846), William Wilberforce (1759–1833), Thomas Malthus (1766–1834), Francis Wrangham (1769–1843), Matthew “Monk” Lewis (1775–1818), Charles Lamb (1775–1834) Henry Hallam (1777–1859), Mark Peter Roget (1779–1869), William Buckland (1784–1856), Leigh Hunt (1784–1859), Thomas De Quincey (1785–1859), Richard Whateley (1787–1863), William Hamilton (1788–1856), Charles Babbage (1791–1871), George Peacock (1791–1858), John Herschel (1792–1871), Thomas Arnold (1795–1842), Macaulay (1800–1859), and Thomas Beddoes (1803–1849). BACK

[3] Even though an avowed atheist, Shelley demonstrated the effects of his early biblical training right up to the month of his death, when, according to Holmes, he kept a small vellum notebook in which he recorded bits of verse and Biblical fragments (726). BACK

[4] Dr. Vincent, the headmaster of Westminster when Southey was there, cautioned schoolmasters not to go faster in teaching than boys could learn. BACK

[5] We know that by the time he was fourteen, Wordsworth had advanced to Greek studies at Hawkshead, where he used Hendricks’ Greek lexicon and owned his own copy of Demosthenes. In 1785 his father also bought him a copy of Euclid in Greek and a Greek exercise book. Wordsworth’s brother Christopher was similarly taught as a boy and both continued their classical reading at Cambridge. Years later, when he became Master of Trinity, Christopher Wordsworth encouraged Greek studies in English schools, and, despite the dominance of Newtonian mathematics at the university, he encouraged interest in classical studies at Trinity. As Bruce Graver has reminded us, it was through his brother at Trinity that Wordsworth “kept in touch with many of the leading Hellenists of the day” (42). BACK

[6] Charles James Fox, who attended Eton and Oxford, is reputed to have carried a volume of Horace with him at all times. See Clancy’s work on Wordsworth and Horace. BACK

[7] Alcaics are strophes of three or four lines, which usually consist of eleven, ten, and/or nine syllables. Sapphics are strophes of four lines, which typically have eleven, fifteen, and/or sixteen syllables. BACK

[8] An indication of how well-acquainted boys were with the purposes and conventions of prosody can be discerned in the questions appearing in the grammar textbook used at the Bath Grammar School in 1794. These included “What is the use of Prosody,” “What are the Feet most commonly made Use of?”, “Of how many Syllables does a Dactyl consist?”, and “What is Synalaepha?” (Morgan 9, 10, 15, 20). BACK

[9] A mora is a lingering or “long” syllable. A moraic trochee is a foot in which the first syllable is a “long” syllable, which, therefore, carries more stress than the first syllable of a simple trochee. BACK

[10] The emphasis upon memory work is founded on the classical rhetorical tradition, in which memory is one of the five canons. The Pythagoreans were especially dedicated to using memory training, for they considered the possession of a powerful memory as necessary to their endeavors to recollect the immortal soul. Memory was, therefore, a necessary pre-condition of moral and spiritual excellence. In later Christian times, cultivating the memory became a part of salvation theology. The importance of memory is not unprecedented in other cultures. From at least the time of the Middle Ages, Chinese students were expected to memorize the Five Classics and the Four Books of Confucian teaching along with the commentaries by Zhu Xi (1130–1200). The Brahmin tradition of India even today depends upon students having highly trained memories. The Vedas and commentaries are memorized using elaborate methods, including memorizing syllables of passages in reverse to the end that all rituals will be correctly chanted. BACK

[11] The Iliad is approximately 15,500 lines. BACK

[12] So great was Knox’s appreciation of memory work that he asserted rather dramatically that “honour, spirit, [and] liberality, will be acquired, by committing to memory the thoughts and words of heroes, and of worthies, who eminently shone in every species of excellence” (102). BACK

[13] Praed, who had a career in politics that was cut short by his early death from tuberculosis, was one of the student founders of The Etonian. At Trinity College, Cambridge, he was the winner of multiple Greek and English poetry medals. BACK

[14] Coleridge recalls his headmaster exclaiming “Harp? Harp? Lyre? Pen and ink, boy, you mean! Muse, boy, Muse? Your nurses’ daughter, you mean!” (381). BACK

[15] https://www.reed.edu/english/intra/index.html BACK

[16] Tsur, "Poetic Rhythm: Performance Patterns and Their Acoustic Correlates;" Tsur, Poetic Rhythm: Structure and Performance—an Empirical Study in Cognitive Poetics; Tsur, Toward a Theory of Cognitive Poetics). BACK