Gladstone and the Romantics: our new April display

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From his collection here at the Library, we are aware that Gladstone had a profound interest in the Romantic poets. Material written by and about the major Romantic figures such as Shelley, Wordsworth, Blake, Coleridge, Keats and Byron line shelves with the classmark R in our Gladstone Foundation Collection.

This month our History Room display cabinet will showcase material on Shelley, Wordsworth and Byron. Each book in the display belonged to William Gladstone himself and include the former Prime Minister’s written annotations.

The biographical book, Life of Shelley by William Sharp and published in 1887, (classmark WEG R 34/SHE SHA) is an excellent example.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822) embodied all the major themes of Romanticism during his short life, from glee to despair, and brooding to rebellion. His works reflected the ever-changing landscape around him, and he is seen as a symbol of the revolutionary ideas and strong emotions of the Romantic period. Shelley, like Gladstone, attended Eton college. However, unlike the Grand Old Man, Shelley was given the nickname ‘Mad Shelley’ for his passionate outbursts, interest in the occult, and his advocating atheism. Although ostracized for his beliefs, the poet did hold fond memories of the college as noted in a diary entry presented in Sharp’s biography:

'Those bottles of warm tea-

Give me some straw- must be stowed tenderly;

Such as we used, in summer after six,

To cram in great coat pockets, and to mix

Hard eggs and radishes and rolls at Eton,

And, couched on stolen hay in those green harbours

Farmers call gaps, and we schoolboys call arbours,

Would feast till eight.' [1] 

Interestingly, this passage has a small pencil mark next to it made by Gladstone. This could be a nod from Gladstone at the nostalgia he felt for his school days. 

Another leading figure of the Romantic Movement in literature was Lord Byron (1788-1824). Byron was also a rather shocking public figure and was the subject of numerous scandals and love affairs. Despite this, Gladstone seemed quite fond of his works and our Gladstone Foundation Collection includes a modest amount of material concerning the poet. Gladstone may have collected materials on this Romantic due to Byron’s vocal appreciation and support of the Armenian people. Although the Romantics stressed the importance of the individual, they also advocated a commitment to mankind. Byron was no exception to this and became actively involved in the struggles for Italian nationalism and the liberation of Greece from Ottoman rule. Much like Gladstone would become in his later years, Byron was a well-known enthusiast who spoke for the oppressed.

Poetry of Byron Chosen and Arranged by Matthew Arnold was edited by the nineteenth-entury cultural critic, Matthew Arnold (1822-1888). It consists of Byron’s most famous works such as ‘She Walks in Beauty’, ‘The Corsair’, and ‘Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage’. The book was gifted to Gladstone by Arnold - we know this because of Arnold’s small dedication to Gladstone within the front cover of the book. 

Most of us are familiar with the Romantic poem, ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’, or ‘The Daffodils’ by the major poet and nature-lover, William Wordsworth (1770-1850). Gladstone was in possession of a three-volume collection of Wordsworth’s works and essays, of which the second is on display in our History Room. The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, volume 2, edited by Rev. Alexander B. Grosart (Classmark WEG R 34/WOR), includes Wordsworth’s epic ‘Guide through the District of the Lakes’. First published in 1810 but best known for the expanded and updated 1835 edition seen in our display, it saw the beginnings of mass tourism to the Lake District. The District soon became fundamental to his identity as a Romantic poet and Wordsworth became known as one of the ‘Lake Poets’ alongside fellow Romantics, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey. A lover of nature and the environment, Wordsworth’s Guide contains information for tourists visiting the District and how they may appropriately and respectfully enjoy the scenery:

'In preparing this Manual, it was the Author's principal wish to furnish a Guide or Companion for the Minds of Persons of taste, and feeling for Landscape, who might be inclined to explore the District of the Lakes with that degree of attention to which its beauty may fairly lay claim (…) he will begin by undertaking the humble and tedious task of supplying the Tourist with directions how to approach the several scenes in their best, or most convenient, order.' [2]

Due to its stylistic diversity and its wide range of subject, Romanticism still retains its iconic status within English Literature, inspiring generations to make their voices heard. English poet and cultural critic, Matthew Arnold was fully aware of the influence the major Romantic poets, such as Shelley, Byron and Wordsworth, had at the turn of the 19th Century as he notes:

'When the year 1900 is turned, and our nation comes to recount her poetic glories in the century which has then just ended, the first names with her will be these.' [3]

Our Gladstone and The Romantics display will be up until 30th April. Readers and residents of the Library can see the display in our History Room 9am – 5pm, members of the public can view it on our free Glimpses of the Library held at 12 noon, 2pm and 4pm every day. 


[1] Shelley, Percy Bysshe, Life of Shelley, Sharp, William. editor, (London: 1887) p.31 (WEG/R34/SHE SHA) 

[2] Wordworth, William, ‘A Guide through the District of the Lakes in the North of England’, The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, Grosart, Rev. Alexander B. editor, (London 1876) p. 221 (WEG/R34/WOR)

[3] Arnold, Matthew, ‘An Introduction’, Poetry of Byron Chosen and Arranged by Matthew Arnold (London: 1881), p.xxxi (WEG R 34/BYR)

By Kit Johnson