Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Why I Edited Romanticism: 100 Poems

Michael Ferber

As an undergraduate in 1964 I took a seminar in the English Romantics (the six male poets then considered canonical) and was imprinted like a chick by the first poet we read, William Blake.  I couldn’t get enough of Blake, who was fascinatingly different from me, a Unitarian trained in the sciences, but who was evidently onto something deep and visionary that I wanted to know about.  I went on to write my doctoral dissertation on him, and as a professor I published two books and a dozen articles on him.  Naturally I went on to study and teach the other major poets—Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats—and wrote a book about Shelley, but Blake preoccupied my scholarly mind and imagination until mid-career.

At that point I felt it was high time to look at the many British women poets of the Romantic period who by then had been rediscovered and re-edited by feminist scholars: Charlotte Smith, Felicia Hemans, Letitia Landon, and many others.  They were much better known and appreciated in their day than Blake was, a few almost as popular as Byron, and they wrote some very good poems.   And then it also came to me that here I was, nearly fifty, and I had yet to take account of the great Romantic poets of the Continent: Eichendorff, Heine. Lamartine, Hugo, Foscolo, Mickiewicz, Pushkin!  Not to mention Günderode, Desbordes-Valmore, Droste-Hülshoff, and several other somewhat neglected women poets.  I put them all, along with some Americans, on my bucket list, and got to work.

It was clear that many of them had not been translated fully, or not since the nineteenth century, when “translation” was usually “imitation,” rather like Bécquer’s lovely imitación of Byron’s “I Saw Thee Weep,” though not so lovely.  “Imitation,” of course, is all that many people think you can do with poetry, since poetry, of course, “is what gets lost in translation.”  You can only make a new poem, they say, that might channel something of the original.  As I read the originals in the languages I had some competence in, however, I felt there could be better versions of them in English, and that not all their “poetry” must be lost, and I soon found myself trying my hand.  I also, happily, found many better translators than I who agreed with me, and were happy to make some new versions at my request.  The result was an anthology of European Romantic Poetry in 2005.

That book was abandoned by the publisher at birth when another conglomerate acquired it.  So I was delighted when Cambridge invited me to edit Romanticism: 100 Poems.  Here was a chance to offer a modest sample of the poetry of a great poetic period in Britain, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Poland, Russia, and the United States.  Whether the poets should all be called “Romantics” is a bottomless question—I have a go at defining “Romanticism” in the introduction—but there were certainly common themes and forms, common influences, and personal communications among them.  In several countries they are the national poets.  In this new volume, I hope, readers will find both familiar favorites, probably in English, and a few happy surprises in every language. 

Michael Ferber’s
Romanticism: 100 Poems will be available soon

About The Author

Michael Ferber

Michael Ferber is Professor of English and Humanities Emeritus at the University of New Hampshire. After a stint in physics and math he majored in Greek and English at Swarthmore ...

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