The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 15, No 2 (2011)

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Jabberwocky

David Beagley, editor


Early Blossoms of Genius: Child Poets at the End of the Long 18th Century

Katharine Kittridge


Katharine Kittredge is Professor of English at Ithaca College, where she teaches courses in Women's Studies, Science Fiction, and Children's Literature.  She is the editor of the anthology Lewd and Notorious: Female Transgression in the 18th Century and the author of numerous articles on the Anglo-Irish poet and diarist Melesina Trench.  This paper is part of her current project, which focuses on children who published books of poetry at the end of the long 18th century.


If, as Churchill said, “history is written by the victors,” it is not surprising that the history of childhood has invariably been written by adults.  Of course, time defeats all children  but, perhaps more importantly, few children from the past have written accounts of their lives which subsequent [adult] generations have found worthy of preservation. A rare exception to this rule can be found in the many books of poetry published by juvenile (under the age of twenty-one) [1] British authors during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The trend emerged in the 1770s with publications by Thomas Chatterton, Michael Bruce, and Hannah More, and continued at a steady pace until reaching its peak of popularity between 1800 and 1810. These years saw high-profile juvenile publications by such future luminaries as Leigh Hunt, Lord Byron, and Felicia Dorothea Hemans, but there were also scores of other child publications that were critically acclaimed and widely purchased during their day, but are now entirely forgotten.  At this point in my research, I have identified 125 books of poetry that were published between the years 1770 and 1830 by authors under the age of twenty-one; eighty-nine of these were published between the years 1790 and 1820.  The average age at which the children composed their poetry in the 1790’s was 17.45 years old, from 1800-1810 it was 15.9, and from 1810-1820 it was 17.6 years of age.  During the peak years of 1800-1810 , there were sixteen books containing poems composed before the age of sixteen, and eight containing verse by children younger than twelve. [2]  Taken together, these texts provide a rare opportunity to view the past through the eyes of children and also give us a rare opportunity to hear authentic pre-Victorian children’s voices.

I believe that, in the United Kingdom at the end of the eighteenth century, a number of factors came together to create an environment in which young writers could find early recognition and frequent publication.  Three of those factors are the role of composition in contemporary education, the increasing number of periodicals being published, and the expanding market for poetry by nontraditional writers.

An 1800 essay in The Juvenile Library succinctly describes the role which composition is thought to play in contemporary education:

is not sufficient to make a deep and constant study of literature…in order to be a complete scholar, the pupil must try his own powers, and be able to execute in his turn…Versification…is very useful in forming the style; nothing sharpens the wit more, nothing contributes more to give grace, energy, or ingenuity to the thoughts.(1, 45)

We see this philosophy illustrated in the letters exchanged between Anglo-Irish writer Melesina Trench and her son Francis while he was a student at Harrow:

Now your verses are . . .precious to me.  I congratulate your father, you, and myself, on the frequent marks of approbation they have received.  To write good verses is a most graceful accomplishment, even in those whose business in life is of a different nature.  At present it is your business, and your complete success gives us at home much pleasure. (Trench 10).

From the letters exchanged between mother and son it seems that the “business” of student poetry at a public school was wide-ranging.   During the few months that are documented in the correspondence, Francis and the other Harrow boys compose poems on geographical features (“the river Danube and the countries through which it flows”(9)), write in three languages “about the new Speech-room, and the school in general”(12), make “pretty verses on the setter”(11), and, when two of the school’s governors die, are given “a set of lyrics to do on their death” (40).

Another important feature of writing instruction during this period was the element of competition and public praise. The British system of education had long believed (as Southey states) “we need encouragement in youth…and praise is the sunshine, without which genius will whither and fade” (White 9).  This belief is at the heart of public school tradition of prize poetry competitions in which the students competed in the composition of verses on a set topic written in Latin, Greek, or English.  Francis Trench’s letters describe prize poems recited at public assemblies, reviewed in local papers, and sometimes published.  During the time of this correspondence, Francis received prizes for his verses upon ?neus (17) and Alcaics on Spain (40), and he gleefully reported that: “Mrs. Leith [his Landlady] was much delighted when she was told that two boys in her house had got prizes, and expressed her satisfaction that we could do something in this way, besides beating the school at cricket, as we did not long ago”(36). 

In contrast to this poetry-saturated education which the privileged class received, children of the laboring classes were frequently dissuaded from poetic composition.   Christian Milne, “Wife of a Journeyman Ship-Carpenter” who published a collection of poetry in 1805 eloquently writes about her early desire to write poetry:

I remember, when only six years old, to have had great delight in reading the poetry in MASON'S COLLECTIONS; and, even at that early age, attempted to make words for the tunes most familiar to my youthful ear. . . never did I think of writing down my own compositions; on the contrary, I made it a rule to conceal my having such things imprinted on my memory. . . .when about fourteen years of age, I began to write down my little pieces; though, having no opportunity of shewing them to people of education, I had the mortification to find myself laughed at, and called idle by my fellow servants. (12-13)

Yet The dramatic increase in the number of newspapers and periodicals which emerged at the end of the eighteenth century particularly benefitted educationally disadvantaged children.  These publications offered them the support and sense of literary community which was frequently lacking in their homes. In a brief biography of the poet Robert Bloomfield (1766-1823), the orphaned son of a tailor, his brother recounts how

Robert seemed always eager to read this Review [of literary works in the London Magazine].  Here he could see what the Literary Men were doing, and learn how to judge the merits of the Works that came out.  And I observed that he always looked at the Poet’s Corner.  And one day he repeated a Song which he composed to an old tune.  I was so much surprised that a boy of sixteen should make so smooth verses: so I persuaded him to try whether the Editor of our Paper would give them a place in the Poet’s Corner.  And he succeeded, and they were printed.  (Bloomfield vii)

Many child poets published even earlier: Thomas Chatterton is thought to have published his first pieces in his local paper, Felix Farley’s Bristol Journal, between the ages of ten and twelve (Kaplan 48).  Often the prefatory material in the child-authored volumes indicates that their authors had previously published work in local papers, pocketbooks, or periodicals. For example, Henry Headley, who published Fugitive Pieces (1785) at age 19, indicates that many of the poems it contains “have been before made public at different times, through different channels, and under various signatures” (iii). It is difficult to tell exactly how many child poets published in periodicals since their works, as noted here, were rarely identified as being by children.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century an additional market for children’s writing appeared as the first periodicals aimed directly at children were published. Some of these periodicals featured writing contests like those sponsored by The Monthly Preceptor/Juvenile Library which awarded prizes of medals, books, globes, and cash to the winning children.  This was a rare chance for children “educated at home” to have their work published beside that of the young gentlemen hailing from Harrow and Rugby.  For a number of the child poets, including Leigh Hunt (the son of a minister) and Henry Kirke White (apprenticed to a stocking-maker), success in competition and periodical publication encouraged them to prepare their own volumes for publication. 

Children who saw their first publications in contemporary periodicals were able to rapidly progress to the publication of actual books due to the extraordinary expansion of the market for all types of poetry during this time.  In 1834, The Edinburgh Review looked back at the century’s previous decades as the period when “the supply and the demand for poetry was exuberant and eager to an unusual degree” (1; vol. 60).  The editors described it as a time when “men, women and children have all taken to the vocation of Pindars and Sapphos,—and, in most cases, with marvelous success” (33; vol. 59). The reading public seemed especially hungry for texts by authors from sectors of society which did not frequently publish; according to the Poetical Register, “The labouring class of society has, of late years, teemed with poets, and would-be poets.  If it should much longer display the same fertility, there will not be a single trade or calling which will not have produced a bard” (546). In this brief time of “exuberant poetry” there seems to have been space made for everyone; even the very young.

Young authors’ poetry covered a wide range of topics and existed in a variety of formats, including prize poems, [3] collections of schoolboy exercises, and occasional pieces.  However, what is most striking about the vast majority of the volumes which young people published during this time is how un-childlike they appeared. It is perhaps significant that the first and most famous of the child poets in this cycle was Thomas Chatterton (1752-1770), whose primary publication, Poems, Supposed to Have Been Written at Bristol by Thomas Rowley (1777), was a forgery in which the seventeen-year-old Chatterton impersonated an adult—in this case, a fifteenth century priest. 

While most of the child poets freely admitted their youth—many featured their ages on their title pages or in their prefaces [4] —their primary desire was to create poems which would meet adult standards, earn them money, and improve their chances of becoming professional writers. As Juliet McMaster notes regarding the publications of twentieth-century children in her influential essay, “‘Adults Literature’ by Children”: “she [the child author] is deliberately doing what the adults do, and increasingly she envisages her book as a book among proper published books, read with admiration by adults—and herself as an author with authority among authors” (296).  As a result of their desire to meet adult standards, the child poets’ books frequently resembled the books of their elders in subject, format, and tone.

Two excellent examples of the juvenile poetry of this period are Thomas Romney Robinson’s [5] Juvenile Poems (1806) “Written between the ages of seven and thirteen,” and Poems (1808) by Felicia Dorothea Browne (later Hemans) [6] which contained poems she had written between the ages of eight and fifteen.  Like most of the adult-authored poetry volumes published during this period both books began with a dedication to a socially powerful person. Thomas Romney Robinson’s book was dedicated to The Right Rev. Thomas, Lord Bishop of Dromore (3); Felicia Dorothea Browne dedicated her book to H.R.H. The Prince of Wales and Lady Viscountess Kirkwall (n.p.).

Browne and Robinson’s books also resemble adult-authored books in the way that they preface their volumes with a modest disclaimer about the unworthiness of its contents. Robinson declares that “This little offering is very inadequate …” (n.p.) and Browne proclaims, “What tho’ with feeble hand I strike the lyre…” (1).  These disclaimers are often accompanied by a justification for the author’s “temerity” in publishing—the entreaties of friends, the need to raise money for an impoverished family, or a desire to finance the education of its author.  One of the most affecting stories is that of Dorothea Primrose Campbell, the eldest child in a family which had been struggling to pay her grandfather’s debts even before the death of her father and the opium addiction of her mother.  At age eighteen, “D.P.” offered her poems to a publisher at Inverness with “the hope of alleviating the many deep distresses which his [ her father’s ] untimely and lamented death has entailed upon his afflicted family”(6). [7] Similarly, we are told that William Isaac Roberts, who died of consumption at age 20, “on the eve of his dissolution…bequeathed them [his poems] as a legacy to his sister, with all the profit that might accrue from their sale” (Monthly Review 60; vol.65).

This brings us to the third feature that many of them share: They are usually published by subscription and contain long and varied lists of patrons. According to Alan Richardson, in the Romantic period, patronage had stopped being a matter of an aristocratic figure supporting a less fortunate writer, and had become “a quasi-public institution”:

If the initial “discovery” of the prodigy was made by a local bookseller, pastor, or literary figure, a better-connected benefactor might well be required to negotiate with publishers; a group of subscribers (perhaps headed by a titled aristocrat) would be solicited to subsidize printing costs; and, finally, reviewers might appeal to the book-buying public in the name of charity as well as curiosity. (Richardson 248)

Subscriptions were officially a means of defraying the costs of publication, but when the lists were as extensive as those of Thomas Romney Robinson (nearly fifteen hundred subscribers) and as influential as those of Leigh Hunt (over 800 names in the first edition), it is clear that “subscriptions” were a significant source of revenue.  They could also be a way of telling potential customers (and reviewers) that the author was supported by people of influence and wealth yield critical benefits. In the case of Leigh Hunt, the listing of wealthy and powerful subscribers no doubt contributed to the favorable reviews of the book, as is evident in the The Monthly Review’s remark that “We are happy in seeing a respectable list of subscribers prefixed to these poems” (180; vol. 36) before their uncharacteristically glowing review.

The more negative side of the subscription system can be seen in the case of Thomas Dermody (1775-1802). The Irish prodigy ran away to Dublin at age eleven where he eventually acquired the patronage of Mr. Austin, who took him into his house (an academy for young boys) and began gathering subscriptions for the publication of a volume of Dermody’s poems.  After being punished for lying, Dermody, then fourteen, “gave vent to his feelings; and in a paroxysm of resentment, wrote four lines in which the families of his patron and patroness were severely and humourously satirized” (Raymond 102).  When Austin was shown these lines he

destroyed the poems which he had collected for publication, returned to the subscribers the whole of the money he had received for the boy’s support and education, shut his doors against him, and turned him once more upon the world, friendless and forsaken. (Raymond 103)

This anecdote shows how vulnerable even the most talented young poets were at this time. By the early nineteenth century, the subscription system had become so ubiquitous that when the eighteen-year-old Henry Kirke White published his collection of poems, Clifton Grove in an attempt to finance his studies at Cambridge, the Monthly Review suggested that “A subscription, with a statement of the particulars of the author’s case, might have been calculated to have better answered his purpose” (218; vol. 40).

In addition to using adult methods to finance and sell their works, child poets courted the respect of their audience by going to great lengths to establish their intellectual credentials.  The quest for respectability took two routes: exhibiting their literary learning, and writing about “adult” topics.  The extent to which these strategies are gendered can be seen by comparing Robinson’s and Browne’s works. 

Robinson’s volume contains poems which make it clear that he is an observer (if not a participant) in the world of adult affairs.  His poems comment on other poems (“To William Hayley on Reading ‘His Triumph of Music’”), exhibit his classical knowledge (“Translation from Ovid’s Metamorphoses,”“A Paraphrase on the Tablet of Cebes”) and comment on social events (“Verses on the Death of W. Cunningham”) and contemporary politics (“On the Peace: Written in His Eighth Year”).  The presence of poems that are clearly derivative or imitative of others should be regarded as a reflection of contemporary poetic values, not an artistic Failure.  As Christine Alexander points out: for poets “who respected the teaching of ancients, imitation was a literary genre” (78).

In contrast, Browne’s volume, which is among the roughly one quarter of these publications which were authored by female children, displays erudition in forms sanctioned by conventional female education.  She includes poems written in French, poems exhibiting her knowledge of history and the Bible: “A Spartan Mother to Her Son,” and ”Part of the 104th Psalm, Paraphrased”; and poems which showed her awareness of other works of literature: “A Tribute: To the Genius of Robert Burns.”  Although she does include the current-events inspired “Sacred to the Memory of Lord Nelson,” most of Browne’s  poetry is of a personal nature: “Lines, for My Mother’s Birth-Day,” “To My Younger Brother on His Entering the Army,” and “Lines to Major Cox, On Receiving from Him an Elegant Box of Colours.” It is clearly important to her to be seen within her family context. Browne also includes far more poems on abstract topics such as “Liberty” and “Youth,” whereas Robinson’s poems are largely inspired by events, or works of art (“On Seeing a Picture of Hafiz”). Both Browne and Robinson also include poems with subjects  which resemble the poems in contemporary poetry books published for child readers (particularly the work of Ann and Jane Taylor, 1800): they write birthday poems to their parents, describe the seasons, and write poems to nature (Robinson:“The Garland of May”; Browne: “The April Morn”).  For the most part, however, they seem to be avoiding all childhood-related topics—there are no poems about childish games or family pets, for example--and they clearly want to be judged by adult standards. In 1806, Robinson wrote an opening speech for a fellow-prodigy: “Address Spoken by the Young Phoenomenon, on her Introduction to the Irish Stage”

What though the indignant voice of age exclaim,
And proudly scorn my young attempts at fame;
...let not prejudice despotic reign
or bind your sense in his rigorous chain. (102)

In short, these poets are doing their best to overcome the inevitable age-prejudice by replicating to the best of their ability the content and format of adult authors. 

In contrast, the works of children which were published after their (early) deaths often emphasize the authors’ youth by deviating from the formal adult structure and embedding the poems in an account of the poet’s life.  Approximately nineteen of the juvenile works I have identified between 1790 and 1820 were published posthumously. One of the most critically acclaimed of the “dead child poets” was Caroline Symmons who died in 1803 “of a decline,” and who was first presented in “A Short Memoir, Interspersed with a Few Poetical Productions, of  the Late Caroline Symmons” appended to the work of a family friend, Francis Wrangham in 1804. Although Wrangham’s own work was largely panned by the critics, The Monthly Review raved about

the amiable and astonishing subject of the annexed memoir; who displayed, when she was only eleven years old, a brilliancy of invention, and a harmony of numbers “little less than miraculous” and who may fairly be classed among the prodigies of early genius…A life so prematurely terminated can afford but few incidents: but it is surprising that it should have marked its transient meteor-like existence here by so many coruscations of elegant thought and reflection.  (437, vol. 42)

The fifteen poems included in “A Short Memoir” are very similar to those produced by Browne in their focus on natural phenomena (“On Spring,”“The Hare-Bell, “On May-Day”), their addresses to family members (“To Fannia”), and in their consideration of abstract topics: “To Memory,” and “Address to Content.”  However, there is none of the intellectual posturing which is present in Browne’s work, and no disclaimers or petitions for fair reading.  Instead, we have the voice of the adult biographer, presenting the poems as evidence for his assertion of their young author’s “very extraordinary powers,” and describing them in homely terms: “A Sonnet, addressed to her elder sister, of a still prior date I had overlooked (20)… A story in heroic measure, entitled ‘Laura’…through some unfortunate neglect it is now, I fear, in great part at least, irrevocably lost” (21).  These the poems are presented as a way of reconstructing the life of a lost child, whereas the goal of the work of living children was to launch them into the adult world of publishing.

The case of Henry Kirke White allows us to compare the different standards applied to the works of living child authors and those used to evaluate the deceased.  When White’s Clifton Grove was published in 1804, it was dismissed by The Monthly Review: “we commend his exertions and his laudable efforts to excel; but we cannot compliment him with having already learned the difficult art of writing good poetry…If Mr. White should be instructed by alma mater [Cambridge], he will doubtless produce better sense and better rhimes” (218; vol. 40). Two years later, White was dead, and Robert Southey republished Clifton Grove and some of White’s other writing as The Remains of Henry Kirke White with an Account of his Life.  The young man who had earlier been dismissed for “incorrectness” and paternally cautioned against “exposing his compositions to the eye of the Public without due consideration” (Fugitive Poetry 453) was now compared favorably with Chatterton, and his poems were said to “discover strong marks of genius” (White 18).  Southey placed the poems within the context of White’s exemplary life, stating “The reader who feels any admiration for Henry will take some interest in all these remains, because they are his; he who shall feel none must have a blind heart, and therefore a blind understanding” (White 40).  The public responded with its feeling “heart:” The Remains passed through ten editions in the next ten years.[8]

The example of Henry Kirke White is dramatic, but not unusual in its depiction of a fickle and unfeeling press. Many of the reviews of the child poets started with phrases like “Though we are far from entertaining the faintest wish to discourage youthful bards…”, (Monthly Review 437; vol. 46) and then went on to intellectually disembowel their young subjects. [9] Child poets were chastised when their work was technically correct but “no indication of genius appears” (Poetical Register 443), and likewise when their “warmth of youth” inspired “verses wanting both rhyme and rhythm; and… numbers which are constructed without regard to grammar”(Monthly Review 208; vol. 65).  Girl poets were told that they evinced “an amiable and feeling mind” but were deficient in “choice and variety of language” and guilty of “defective rhymes” (Monthly Review, 106; vol. 62). The young scholars at Eton were dismissed because “setting aside the merit of their language and versification, they have little else to recommend them.  Much more fancy, and much more feeling, might be expected from the age of sixteen or seventeen” (Monthly Review 444; vol. 65).  In general, child poets were told that they would need “frequent revision, and the corrections of matured judgment and taste,” before their work would “be fit to meet the public eye” (Monthly Review 183; vol. 39). Most were directed toward “a farther perseverance with his studies” (Monthly Review 318; vol. 31) or told that she should “content herself for some years with reading instead of writing” (Monthly Review 323; vol. 60).  In general, the message that the reviewers wanted to convey to juvenile poets was “To write poetry at the age of sixteen is natural enough, but to publish it is not very prudent.” (Monthly Review 318-319; vol. 31). 

One of the factors behind the continuing publication of young writers in the face of unrelenting criticism may have been the prevailing belief that the works of prodigies would be instructive for less-gifted children.  The authors of The Juvenile Library note:

We commonly consider those premature geniuses, who display the knowledge of men while yet in leading strings as phenomena; let us cease to wonder; patience, and sound principles of education accomplish every thing, and supply the defects of nature…the most promising understandings may be formed by means of assiduous cultivation.  (1, 44-45)

The Juvenile Library consistently presented images of “exceptional” children to their youthful audience; there was an on-going feature titled “Lives of Celebrated Children” which gave “true” accounts of children performing astonishing feats of bravery, patriotism, or erudition.  The fourth issue contained an article devoted to Candiac de Montcalm, born in 1719, who was reading at the age of 15 months, and construing the ancient languages by four.  Even as they celebrate Candiac’s precocity, the authors claim that their greater purpose is “to excite the emulation of our pupils; it is to show them that, with pains and application, all kinds of sciences may be acquired from the tenderest years” (1, 258).   Similarly, child writers who won prizes and published poems were often frequently praised for their hard work rather than for their “exceptional “gifts.”  Henry Kirke White is described as a child of “unwearied industry” teaching himself Greek, Latin and Italian: “even at meals he would be reading, and his evenings were entirely devoted to intellectual improvement” (White 8).  

In a similar vein, much of the praise given to child poets—particularly dead child poets—was implicitly directed at their parents or teachers.  The posthumous biography of Caroline Symmons implies that her unusual abilities rose out of her unusual upbringing:

Compared with the rest of her sex, at her tender age, Miss Symmons must strike all observers as a sort of wonder: but, since real miracles have ceased, we must look out for some probable reasons to account for appearances which seem to be beyond the usual course and order of nature.  Miss Symmons, it is true, ”lisp’d  in numbers” [reference to Pope] but her lispings were not “wasted on the desert air.”  In Dr. S.’s family, she breathed, from her infancy, a poetic atmosphere; the earliest indications of genius were sedulously fostered; the first flowers which she gathered were at the foot of Parnassus; and our best poets came before her as soon as she could read them, recommended by a parent’s adoration of them: hence her memory was early stored with the language of song. (Monthly Review 182-183; vol. 41)

This construction of the gifted child as the product of an enriched environment (Symmons) and a good work ethic (White) made them more useful as models to be emulated by other children. This “humanizing” of the child prodigies made them objects of respect rather than wonder.  They are presented as examples of what all children could be instead of as examples of children who surpass ordinary expectations.

The sense that the work of child poets was, to some extent, directed at other children is reinforced by the accounts we have of the response of contemporary child and young adult readers to the texts.  An additional factor behind the vogue for child-authored poetry may have been encouragement that these volumes gave to other children to try their luck as authors—or the luck of their siblings. Percy Bysshe Shelley’s younger sister, Hellen writes that when she was nine (and Shelley was sixteen), Shelley read and admired Felicia Dorothea Browne’s book of juvenile verse, and “fancied that I might, with encouragement, write verses” (Hogg 26).   Shelley began giving his sister poetry lessons by using Monk Lewis’s poems as models and assigning her subjects on which to write short poems. When she had composed a sufficient quantity, Shelley had them printed, but she says that “as soon as the publication was seen by my superiors, it was bought up and destroyed” (Hogg 26).   It is interesting to speculate about how many other little books from this period may also have destroyed by indignant “superiors.”

A child poet did not necessarily have to be a contemporary—or even alive--to inspire other children to verse. Although he died in poverty and despair at age seventeen, Thomas Chatterton loomed large in the imagination of young poets for years after his death.  Chatterton stayed in the public eye due to publications of his Rowley poems in 1777, 1782, and 1803; his letters in 1782, and biographies which were published in 1789, 1803, and 1806.  Many of the young poets in the early part of this period specifically wrote poems about Chatterton, starting with 19-year-old Henry Headley’s writing “Ode to the Memory of Chatterton” in 1785, followed by Thomas Dermody (1788, age 12), Samuel Taylor Coleridge, (1790, age 17), Henry Kirke White (1803, age 18), Percy Bysshe Shelley (1807, age 15), and John Dawes Worgan (1810, age 18).  In turn, Thomas Dermody, who lived to the age of twenty-seven, but remained primarily famous for his juvenile poetry—he was known as “The Irish Chatterton”—inspired juvenile poetry by Henry Kirke White (1802, age 17) and E. Cummins (1808, age 14) as well as an ode by the American child poet John Howard Payne (1807, age 16). 

Henry Kirke White, one of the most ardent admirers of Dermody, was himself the inspiration for another young poet, John Hamilton Reynolds, who would go on to publish two volumes of poetry at age nineteen.  Reynolds is said to have read Kirke White “continually” (J. Richardson 100) and to have felt a deep connection with him, musing “I am terribly afraid as H.K. White said that I have only the longing, without the Afflatus [of poetic genius]” (Richardson 105-6).  According to his biographer, Leonidas M. Jones, “Kirke White, for Reynolds, was similar to what Thomas Chatterton would later become for Keats” (39).  Although they craved the approval of an adult audience, it is clear that for many of the child poets the audiences over whom they had the greatest influence were the children and young adults who avidly read their books.

It goes without saying that the strange phenomenon of child authors’ achieving such prominence [10] must have reflected larger changes in the perception of childhood in the society as a whole. On one hand, the end of the eighteenth century saw the rise of the Romantic view that children were ‘creatures of deeper wisdom, finer aesthetic sensitivity, and a more profound awareness of moral truths’ (Grylls, qtd in Heywood 24); and childhood began to be viewed as a “lost realm that was none the less fundamental to the creation of the adult self” (Heywood 25).  This philosophy makes it seem only logical that adults would become increasingly interested in expressions of a child’s perception of the world. However, at the same time that these views were being articulated, the rise of modern industries encouraged full-time employment for children as young as seven.  According to historian Hugh Cunningham, “the young [workers] were crucial to the profitability of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century industry”(143).  It was not until 1819 that child labor activists were able to pass the Factory Act, which banned children under the age of nine from working in cotton mills or factories and restricted children under fourteen from working more than eight hours a day (Cunningham 142). Ultimately, we must agree with Cunningham when he speaks of the eighteenth century as a time when “[b]oth in attitudes to childhood and in behavior towards children we are confronted at every turn by ambivalence and contradictions” (59).  It may be this ambivalence which explains the strange mix of childishness and precocity which surfaces in the works of the child poets, and the extent to which they were lauded for their premature mastery while being condemned for their audacity in appropriating an adult role. Regardless of the many unusual forces which came together to create (and preserve) this extensive collection of juvenilia, it is clear that further study of these texts will provide some fascinating insights into the many ways in which the children at the end of the eighteenth century negotiated (and sometimes exploited) the strange contradictions of their status within western society.

 

Notes

1. I am following the lead of leading juvenilia researchers Christine Alexander and Juliet McMaster who define juvenilia as “work by writers up to twenty” “Introduction” The Child Writer from Austen to Woolf (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2005). p. 3

2. I have identified another thirty-six texts by poets who were reviewed as “young” or “juvenile” in periodicals such as the Monthly Review, or who were identified as writing as “juvenilia” or “early effusions.” I have not included them in my current list because I am unable verify their actual ages upon composition or publication.

3. My list contains only a small sampling of prize poems.  These publications seem to have been less likely to be reviewed, and come bibliographies ( like O’Donoghue’s Poets of Ireland) explicitly exclude them.

4. Alan Richardson links the celebration of poets’ youth with the rise in laboring class poets: “a foreshortened formal education and youthfulness could work together at once to underwrite claims for the poet’s ‘naïve genius’ and to further contain the poet’s work through infantilization” Literature, Education and Romanticism. (Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1994)  p.250

5. Thomas Romney Robinson (1790-1873) went on to make his most significant contributions in the fields of Astronomy and Mathematics.  According to his entry in the DNB, “It is seldom that ‘the early promise of boyhood has been succeeded by a more brilliant manhood…there was no realm of divinity, history, literature, or poetry that Robinson had not made his own.’”

6. According to Donald Reimans, Felicia Dorothea Browne Hemans (1793-1835) in her short life “achieved wider recognition and popularity among her peers than has any other woman poet in English. . .the number of editions and printings of Hemans’ verse must, I think, outstrip that of all such rival woman poets in the nineteenth century (and, therefore, for all time).“Introduction” Poems; England and Spain; Modern Greece (New York: Garland Publishing, 1978. ) p. 1

7. Two other young women who explicitly published their poetry to help support their families were Emma Lyon, Miscellaneous Poems. (Hatchard, London: J. Bartlett, 1812) and Jane Roscoe, Poems. (London: Baldwin, Craddock, and Joy, 1820).

8. The most famous of all the posthumously published child poets was Marjorie Fleming.(1803-1811), whose work was first published in 1863.  See Judith Plotz “The Pet of Letters: Marjorie Fleming’s Juvenilia” the Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 17.4 (1991-1993): 4-9.

9. Among the child poets famously savaged by adult reviewers were Henry Kirke White (Monthly Review 40, Jan-Apr. 1804): 218) , Lord Byron (Edinburgh Review 11 , Feb. 1808 : 285-9.), and
Felicia Dorothea Browne [Hemans] (Monthly Review 60, Sept-Dec.1809 : 323).

10. Contemporary interest in children taking on adult roles could also be seen on the London stage during the “Infant Craze” of 1804-1806.  The success of the “Young Roscius,” thirteen-year-old Master William Betty who played adult roles like Hamlet, MacBeth and Richard III,  led to what George Cooke recalled in his Autobiography as “some twenty or thirty infant prodigies, under the title of Infant Billington [opera], seven years old Roscius and Billington, Infant Columbine, Ormskirk Roscius, Young Orpheus, Infant Vestris [dance], Infant Clown, Comic Roscius, Infant Dogville, Infant Hercules, and Infant Candle-Snuffer; with some half-dozen young Roscias, of whom Miss Mudie was the last.(I: 333).

Works Cited

Alexander, Christine. “Defining and Representing Literary Juvenilia” in The Child Writer from Austen to Woolf. Ed. Christine Alexander and Juliet McMaster. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005. 70-100.

Browne (later Hemans), Felicia Dorothea. Poems. London: Cadell and Davies, 1808. reprint: Poems; England and Spain; Modern Greece. Intro.by Donald H. Reiman. New York: Garland Publishing, 1978.

Campbell, D.P [Dorothea Primrose]. Poems  Inverness: J. Young, 1811.

Cunningham, Hugh. Children and Childhood in Western Society Since 1500. NY: Pearson, 2005.

Bloomfield, Robert. The Farmer’s Boy: A Rural Poem London: Vernor and Hood, 1800.

Headley, Henry. Fugitive Pieces.  London: C. Dilly, 1785

Heywood, Colin. A History of Childhood. Cambridge, UK: Polity  Press, 2001.

Hogg, Thomas Jefferson. The Life of Shelley. In The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley. Intro. by Humbert Wolfe. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1933.

The Edinburgh Review. Boston: Lilly et al., 1830-35.

Groom, Nick, Ed. Thomas Chatterton and Romantic C ulture. NY: St. Martin’s Press, 1999.

The Juvenile Library. London: T. Gillet, 1800-1801.

Kaplan, Louise J. the Family Romance of the Imposter-Poet Thomas Chatterton NY: Atheneum, 1988.

McMaster, Juliet. “‘Adults’ Literature,’ By Children” The Lion and the Unicorn 25 (2001): 277-299.

Milne, Christian. Simple Poems on simple Subjects. Aberdeen: J. Chalmers & Co., 1805. Electronic  text: British Women Romantic Poets Project. Shields Library, University of California at Davis, 2001. April 24, 2009. http//:ucdavis.worldcat.org/oclc.

The Monthly Review. Vols. 32- 107. London: R. Griffiths, 1801-1825.

Muller, Anja. Ed. Fashioning Childhood in the Eighteenth Century. London: Ashgate, 2006.

Poetical Register and Repository of Fugitive Poetry. London: F. and C. Rivington, 1806.

Jones, Leonidas M. The Life of John Hamilton Reynolds. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 1984.

Raymond,James Grant The Life of Thomas Dermody, Interspersed with Pieces of Original Poetry. Dublin: William Miller, 1806.

Richardson, Alan. Literature, Education, and Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1994.

Richardson, Joanna, ed. Letters from Lambeth. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 1981.

Richardson, Alan.  Literature, Education and Romanticism. Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 1994.

Roberts, William Isaac. Poems and Letters. London: Longman & Co., 1811.

Robinson, Thomas Romney. Juvenile Poems.  Belfast: J. Smyth and D. Lyons, 1806.

Roe, Nicholas. Fiery Heart: The First Life of Leigh Hunt. London: Pimlico, 2005.

Symmons, Caroline. “Memoir and Poetical Productions” in The Raising of Ja?rus’s Daughter. London: R. Taylor, 1804.

Trench, Francis. A Few Notes From Past Life. London: John Henry and James Parker, 1862.

White, Henry Kirke. The Poetical Works and Remains of Henry Kirke White. Ed. Robert Southey. NY: D Appleton, 1855.

 

Katharine Kittridge


Volume 15, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, May/June 2011

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"Early Blossoms of Genius: Child Poets at the End of the Long 18th Century" ©Katharine Kittridge, 2011.
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