The Making of the English Literary Canon

Robert Folkenflik
University of California, Irvine

The English canon, like the English Constitution, does not exist in written form, and yet its authority is continually invoked—a situation reminiscent of a comment attributed to George Santayana: “There is no God, and Mary is his mother”; the literary canon does not exist, but we can all recite the names on the list.   This is why Harold Bloom’s The Western Canon can evoke such derisory hoots.   (Try to read his chapter on Tolstoy’s Hadji Murad, which he prefers to War and Peace and Anna Karenina, with a straight face.)   Even the religious canon of the Catholic Church, which provides the term and to some extent the model (not least in its mystification) for the formation of a secular canon of writers, has a more heterodox and contested background than is usually recognized.[1] As a “rule” or “standard , ” the idea of the canon begins hundreds of years before the Common Era.

Some caveats about such inquiries are in order: in the eighteenth century, the label “Johnson’s Poets” appeared on the spines of fifty-eight volumes of poetry, including two volumes of indexes, from Cowley to Gray.   And yet, in a note neither signed nor addressed, though probably intended for John Nichols, Samuel Johnson complains: “It is great impudence to put Johnson’s Poets on the back of books which Johnson neither recommended nor revised.   . . . How then are they Johnson’s?   This is indecent.” [2]   Johnson’s exasperation is a good indication of the difficulties that arise in the attempt to assign agency in the making of the English canon.   The spine-labels seemed to assert a possession and authorization of this edited collection of the “English poets” that Johnson himself, neither editor nor selector, would deny.   The booksellers chose the authors, except for a few, but Johnson’s valuation of them both in his explicit commentary and the attention he devotes to them forms one authoritative and controversial version of the of the English canon in the hundred years or so before he published.   The Lives of the Poets is a good example of the combination of print culture and commerce (“print-capitalism” is the term that Jonathan Kramnick borrows for his subtitle from Benedict Anderson) that leads to canon-formation.   In contrast, the quotations illustrative of the entries in his Dictionary (1755) give another kind of authoritative institution of a canon—this one covering roughly twice the period of the Lives of the Poets ; the Dictionary‘s Johnson plays his role in Kramnick’s Making the English Canon: Print-Capitalism and the Cultural Past, 1700–1770 (Cambridge, 1998).

The English canon was not monolithic; it could be found in many places, including a range of genres and print forms such as anthologies, biographical dictionaries (Longbaine, Winstanley, “Cibber”), general histories of England, reviews, editing, scholarship, and in the form of library busts or portraits looking down at readers.   Temples of Fame were as apt to be architectural (Stowe) as literary (Pope). It is to Trevor Ross’s credit in The Making of the English Literary Canon: From the Middle Ages to the Late Eighteenth Century (Montreal and Kingston, 1998) that he recognizes something of the visual aspect of the canon, and pays attention to the shifting iconography of frontispiece portraits of Skelton and Christopher Smart (although illustrations would be welcome in this book).   A characteristic canonizing volume such as Oliver Goldsmith’s The Beauties of English Poesy (2 vols., 1767), which Ross quotes in passing, claims “no merit in the choice, as it was obvious, for in all languages the best productions are most easily found.”   What modern reader would expect among the twenty-five poems in the first volume Addison’s “A Letter from Italy to the Right Honourable Charles Lord Halifax” and Collins’s “Agib and Secander”?   Teleology must play a large role in any account of the English canon in the eighteenth century that does not recognize how implicitly contested it was, and how at times it differed from whatever we take to be our current canon.   Both Ross and Kramnick rightly attend to a number of Goldsmith’s comments elsewhere.   The practice now holding attention as “dumbing down” was the focus of Goldsmith’s and others’ complaints in the mid-eighteenth century (Kramnick, 47–49).

Both of these important books use the rubric “English,” rather than British, though Kramnick’s terminus a quo is only seven years before the Union of Scotland and England.   His cutoff period—the middle years of the eighteenth century—keeps him from engaging directly with Hugh Blair as the “creator” of English literature, except in a pair of notes that argue that Franklin E. Court’s championing of Blair and Adam Smith can be met by arguing for the priority of Thomas Warton, even though Warton did not lecture on English poetry as Professor of Poetry at Oxford.[3]   Blair might legitimately merit more discussion because those lectures he gave during the twenty years preceding their publication in 1783 were so influential as a textbook.   It would also be good to see consideration of Blair in relation to the arguments of Robert Crawford in Devolving English Literature, especially in “The Scottish Invention of English Literature.”[4]   Kramnick cannot be right that the canon was “established” by 1770 if Blair is the main player in this drama.   I think that it is fairer to say that the canon was evolving before, during, and after the eighteenth century, though I think that Kramnick is generally right about the importance of the eighteenth century for modern conceptions of the canon, a position adumbrated in a typically incisive article by Douglas Lane Patey.[5]   Ross pays some attention to Blair’s Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres (1783) as well as his edition of “the first large-scale uniform edition of The British Poets (44 vols., 1773),” a Scottish precursor of “Johnson’s” English Poets (227).   Ross too takes issue with Court’s championing of Smith and Blair.

Ross’s sweeping narrative is intended as a “synthesis” and “corrective” of reception histories, case studies of “self-canonizing gestures,” histories of literary theory, and literary histories.   He mentions the work of Lawrence Lipking and Howard Weinbrot as examples of the last category.[6]   His own procedure is to limit his attention to authors’ comments on their predecessors, on criteria of “literary value,” and on “the canonical status of their own work” (15).   He sees himself as conducting a sociological inquiry along the lines of Bourdieu, though John Guillory’s Cultural Capital only gets a nod in a footnote, and Ross ought to say something about the difference in aims between the two books.   Ross sees the key shift as that from a rhetorical to an “objectivist” culture, identified with modernity.   Both commit culture to a search for “transcendence,” the former through words, the latter through knowledge.   Working through this impressively wide-ranging study, he certainly corrects many misleading notions about the English canon, including those that would give too great a priority to the eighteenth century in its formation.

Ross’s book is full of terminological signposts.   He traces the explicit call for a secular canon of English writers to William Covell in 1595: “take the course to canonize your own writer, that not every bald ballader to the prejudice of Art, may passe current with a Poet’s name” (87).   And his book is filled with the early lists and catalogues that served to designate English writers, often in parallel with Greek and Latin writers, as occupying exemplary positions in an imaginary Pantheon.   He is frequently shrewd in drawing conclusions from his close work that contest some positions powerfully advocated by Foucault, for example.

In his account of “How Poesy Became Literature,” which serves as his Epilogue, Ross argues that “Early English writings . . . first became widely available in cheap editions at the moment when they were no longer being thought of as useful models of verbal power but rather as things people might find pleasurable or, better yet, might find essential in helping them to sharpen their taste and refine their sensibility” (297).   This formulation certainly moves away from the rhetorical power of words, but it does not, however consumer-oriented, seem to argue for the power of information promised by the “objective” regime, though it does support his argument that the key shift was from production to consumption.

Ross makes the copyright act of 1774, a subject on which Mark Rose has written so significantly and so well, the establishment of “literature in its modern sense,” a turning of “the canon” into “a set of commodities to be consumed” (297), though one might have expected to find a reference to Rose’s Authors and Owners in a book on “print-capitalism.” The two key eighteenth-century rulings on copyright bracket Kramnick’s inquiry.   From my perspective, both the modern idea of genius and that of copyright were effects of possessive individualism in the realm of authorship. Some of the most interesting work on related topics (for example, Brean S. Hammond and Paula McDowell on hacks) appeared too late for Ross or Kramnick to take into account.

If it were not for Ross’s book, I would probably use the term “wide-ranging” for Kramnick’s since despite his eighteenth-century terminus and his strong focus on the later eighteenth century, he brings into play an extensive dramatis personae.   Kramnick takes his point of departure from early Habermas and in doing so takes issue with Terry Eagleton.   Other theorists who matter for his inquiry include Benjamin, Bourdieu, and Benedict Anderson.   Kramnick often looks at specific agons, usually with a little-known figure pitted against a well-known figure.   In some ways this is precisely the point—the outsider is attacking a well-connected or “charismatic” insider: John Oldmixon–Addison, William Huggins–Thomas Warton, William Kenrick–Johnson.   He also takes into account such important women critics as Elizabeth Montagu and Charlotte Lennox.   Additionally, he cites and analyzes a number of anonymous productions and has an eye for minor figures who matter for the topic, such as Edward Bysshe, Henry Felton, and Philip Skelton.   Kramnick’s book is the sort of thing that even senior scholars might hesitate to attempt because of the range of knowledge required and the complexity of the issues involved.   It is an exceptionally intelligent, theoretically aware, and nuanced account of the process he describes.   Sentence by sentence it provides tough-minded intellectual fare.   As a whole it is impressive, well-written, even eloquent.   There were other ways of doing this job, but he has focused on central issues while bringing some little known aspects of the topic to light.

Kramnick’s focus is on literary critics (though with a sense of the historically shifting notion of both terms).   He begins well after Thomas Rymer’s observation (1674) that “till of late years England was as free from Criticks, as it is from Wolves,” but he does not go past the beginning of the reviews which devoted serious attention to literature from the time of the founding of the Critical Review in 1759.

Kramnick is interested in the growth of professionalism, and Thomas Warton, Professor of Poetry at Oxford, is one of his key figures.   But to put the universities’ role in this story into better perspective, one might notice that the first lectures on Shakespeare in a university were delivered at Oxford from 1751 to 1756 and published as part of Praelectiones Poeticae in 1758 by William Hawkins, Warton’s predecessor as Professor of Poetry.   Shakespeare makes his appearance here as Shakesperius, for the publication, including quotations from Shakespeare’s poetry, is in Latin, though the original English appears as footnotes at the bottom of the page.[7]   It would be hard to imagine a clearer cultural signpost of the lagging state of the university system in establishing the English canon.

Kramnick, who pays valuable attention to Samuel Johnson up to and including the edition of Shakespeare (1765), notes that Johnson refers to himself as a “dictatorial writer” in Rambler No. 23 and might have noticed his similar reference to his “severity of dictatorial instruction” in the last number of the series, No. 208;but Johnson, after all, in this same series enjoins the writer not to “debar himself from the attainment of beauties within his view by a needless fear of breaking rules which no literary dictator had authority to enact.”[8]   Johnson may well be the first one to use this potent phrase, though the idea came earlier.   Johnson’s idea of the literary dictator is conveyed by the stock-jobber turned critic Dick Minim (Idler Nos. 60–61) who spouts a combination of clichés and wrong-headed dicta while awaiting the creation of a literary academy, another of Johnson’s bêtes noires.   Kramnick devotes a few good pages to Minim in eliciting Johnson’s “professional trick” of appearing above the fray by satirizing the opposed stances of “gothicism and refinement” (196).   Kramnick is very aware of a range of genealogies entering into the central discussion, though “linguistic refinement” and “progressive nationalism” both occupy the slot that gives way to “retrospective gothicism” as the end of his inquiry (194).

The first sentence of Kramnick’s account claims, wrongly in my view, that “the English literary canon achieved its definitive shape during the middle decades of the eighteenth century.”   The canon evolves, and if the eighteenth century moved away from regarding Beaumont and Fletcher as more “canonical” than Shakespeare (something that Romanticism could not tolerate and that those committed to the growing importance of genius in the eighteenth century would find very awkward), I do not think that Spenser occupies the place in the modern English-speaking consciousness that he does in the eighteenth century, or, for that matter, at the turn of the last century.   Chaucer has grown in importance, even if we do not take into account the position of post-eighteenth-century writers, and he was often cited as the “Father” of English literature (Kramnick quotes Dryden’s famous version), a figure whom genealogies cannot do without, even if they usually do not seem to require a mother.  The “Age of Spenser” is very infrequently a stand-alone notion because Spenser was born only a decade before Shakespeare.   Institutionally, this meant in my undergraduate years during the second half of the twentieth century that courses on Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton were required.   Kramnick applies his findings to modern culture wars (“the present crisis”) in the last chapter.   I think this a healthy turn, the obverse of Presentism.

The one serious, unexplained lack in Kramnick’s book is a Milton chapter.   His design calls for it.   If in the eighteenth century England was “Shakespeare’s nation,” to use the title of Kramnick’s penultimate chapter, it was also Milton’s.   In many ways Shakespeare is the Tory poet and Milton the Whig in the eighteenth century, and their differing roles for different conceptions of nationalism—royalist and republican—require a balancing attention.   Shakespeare has certainly been “done” as much as Milton, most recently in the idiom of our day by Michael Dobson.   This is not to say that Milton is named as member of the canonical triumvirate and then ignored.   Kramnick recognizes the importance of Richard Bentley’s edition of Milton while focusing on “its dramatic failure to inaugurate historical, critical, textual studies to English literature” (91).   He might have mentioned that Thomas Warton was, like Bentley, a classical scholar, and his edition of Milton’s minor poems has held up better than Bentley’s edition of Paradise Lost, though Bentley was by far the greater classical scholar.   If Kramnick wants to argue institutionally for Warton as a university Fellow drawing on Oxford prestige, he should note also that William Huggins, his candidate for Warton’s not-so-mighty opposite, was also an Oxford Fellow and only dubiously a representative of polite culture.   A more nuanced account here would be useful. More importantly, the role of Addison’s Spectator papers on Milton deserves extended attention.

I will only add that from the spelling of “Laurence Stern” in the “Acknowledgments” onward (vii) there are many errors, and we authors bear the blame for such things, even when typesetters or editors have caused them.   But this is not the place to conclude a review of two books of such high achievement and significant findings.


[1]   Richard McKeon, “Canonic Books and Prohibited Books: Orthodoxy and Heresy in Religion and Culture,” Critical Inquiry 6 (1975): 781–806.

[2]   Samuel Johnson, The Letters of Samuel Johnson 1731–1772, ed.   Bruce Redford, The Hyde Edition (Princeton, 1992–94), 5:32.

[3]   Franklin E. Court, Institutionalizing English Literature: The Culture and Politics of Literary Study, 1750–1900 (Stanford, 1992).

[4]   Robert Crawford, Devolving English Literature (Oxford, 1992).

[5]   Douglas Lane Patey “The Eighteenth Century Invents the Canon,” Modern Language Studies 18 (1988): 17–37.

[6]   Lawrence Lipking , The Ordering of the Arts in Eighteenth-Century England (Princeton,1970); Howard D. Weinbrot, Britannia’s Issue: The Rise of British Literature from Dryden to Ossian (Cambridge, 1993).   The making of the English canon in Britain is a different thing from the perception of the English canon in France, as Howard Weinbrot has wittily shown.   See Howard D. Weinbrot, “Enlightenment Canon Wars: Anglo–French Views of Literary Greatness,” ELH, 60 (1993), 79–100.   Ross criticizes Weinbrot’s book but only gives a footnote reference to the article.

[7]  See Michael Dobson, The Making of the National Poet: Shakespeare, Adaptation and Authorship, 1660–1769 (Oxford, 1992), 205. Hawkins would later publish his classicized revision of Cymbeline .

[8]   For the two latter references to the phrase, see The Rambler, ed. W. J. Bate and Albrecht B. Strauss, The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson (New Haven and London, 1969), 5:319, 70.   For Johnson and the trope of the “literary dictator” see my “That Man’s Scope” in Samuel Johnson: New Critical Essays, ed. Isobel Grundy (London, 1984), 31–50.