Meeting the Test of TimePrint
Why some wordsmiths stay and others fade away
By Stanley Plumly
March 4, 2015
Those Who Write for Immortality: Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame, by H. J. Jackson, Yale University Press, 312 pp., $35
H. J. Jackson’s new book, a thorough and richly argued study that places in historical perspective literary immortality, relies mainly on examples from the Romantic period of those writers who have achieved it and those who have not. The book is, refreshingly, less theoretical than practical, offering what amount to definitive weights and measures as to who dies away, who more or less survives, and who soars.
Early on in her discussion, Jackson produces a “scorecard” of the 22 elements that go into achieving posterity, the most salient of which are quality, quantity, champions (descendants who promote the writer’s work), and biography (books about the writer). The Romantic record is defined, again and again, by the fact that the popular writer, the most highly regarded writer, the most “important” writer as elevated by the wider audience of one’s contemporaries, rarely makes the final cut. It is almost as if delayed recognition, Jackson argues, is integral to discovery and survival.
As a backstory to the English Romantics, Jackson considers Classical and neo-Classical attitudes toward lasting literary fame: including Cicero, who sees earthly (and civic) virtue as its own and future reward; Horace, who brings literature into the equation through the “elitist” values of mastery and originality; and Samuel Johnson, who while acknowledging the vanity of human wishes, elevates the matter to the level of required “genius” as it meets “the test of time” (with a benchmark of 100 years).
Why the focus on the Romantics? As Jackson puts it, “Theirs is the period I know best. They have had their century—the lapse of time after the death of the author that is supposed to allow for sound judgment of her or his worth.” That phrase, “supposed to allow,” is at the crux of Jackson’s ongoing argument for and against the writers time has tested. Her study is set up as a series of comparisons—of William Wordsworth, George Crabbe, and Robert Southey; Walter Scott, Jane Austen, and Mary Brunton; John Keats, Leigh Hunt, and Barry Cornwall; William Blake, John Clare, and Robert Bloomfield. The fleshing-out of these parallels constitutes the fuller narrative of Jackson’s story of how her selections—both the famous and the obscure—were received in their own time and how they have come to be perceived in the long run. Rightly or wrongly.
Jackson has obviously lived with her ideas about the Romantics and their literary immortality for a good while, and the result is a work of scholarship that is also very personal: she has created a text devoid—thank goodness—of jargon and the esoteric and shows an admirable willingness to risk her informed opinion. Words-worth is her “heroic model of authorship,” and his example serves as the template for the various means by which immortality—a laurel more often than not applied after Johnson’s hundred years—will be conferred.
Jackson’s rather un-Romantic underlying theme, reiterated in one form or another throughout her book, is that despite the belief that the best writers are remembered, “long-term survival has depended more on external circumstances and accidental advantages than on inherent literary worth.” But such a provocative statement begs a host of questions: Why, then, is “quality” at the top of Jackson’s list of determining factors? Is the test of time ultimately subjective or accidental? Is advocacy the difference? The reader is left to wonder whether Brunton is really up to the standard set by Austen, or whether Southey might be better remembered had he been as ambitious as Wordsworth. Are the lyrics of Cornwall and Hunt (one of Keats’s mentors) really as magnificent as “Ode to a Nightingale” or “Ode on a Grecian Urn”? When Jackson asserts that poems by these lesser lights are equal to poems by Keats, is she comparing the best of theirs with the least of this young genius? As matters of taste, these questions are unanswerable, but thanks to Jackson, we can at least enjoy the pleasure of considering them.
Immortality, for writers, is a mortal business. Even more, it is a relative business, a matter of degrees. It is not that Southey, Hunt, and Crabbe are forgotten, but rather that they are less remembered or remembered primarily by association. And it is not that Blake and Clare were lifted from obscurity immediately after their deaths—by reputation they are practically 20th-century poets. Jackson’s interpretation of what lasting literary fame is all about is important not only as a study in itself but also as a polemic on authorship and audience. Those Who Write for Immortality is therefore a special book, a delightfully readable and reliable witness for a subject that sometimes seems out of fashion, as ideas of posterity appear either pointless or impossible, in literature or elsewhere. The Romantics may be our best chance to understand the machinery of immortality. l
Stanley Plumly is Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland and the author, most recently, of The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb.