The Surprising History of Ephemera in British Romantic-era Verse

It wasn’t until 1751 that ephemera, the term for an insect whose life spanned a mere day, became figurative. Writing in Rambler 145, Samuel Johnson dubbed newspapers, “the Ephemerae of learning,” those “productions . . . seldom intended to remain in the world longer than a week.” Despite his defense of these writers of ephemera, Johnson’s turn of phrase nonetheless carries notions of death and decay. The printed page loses its value when it loses its immortality, Johnson reports, a notion that permeated the Romantic period’s most often cited authors’ criticism of newspaper verse, criticism inherited by literary critics today.

William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Robert Southey all famously disparaged the newspaper press, while simultaneously publishing verse within its pages. But ephemeral publications often reached larger audiences, not only through larger print runs whose price was palatable for more readers, but also through the culture of coffeehouse and street corner sharing that allowed dailies and weeklies to reach all classes.

This paper confounds the traditional narrative of newspaper verse as ephemera by looking at the surprising history of ephemera in the Romantic period, particularly at the long life of Mary Robinson’s supposedly ephemeral verse. Robinson’s case reveals that newspaper verse lived past its original printed pages, not only in collections such as Southey’s own Annual Anthology, but also in chapbook form, reprinted in newspapers often decades later and countries away, translated into song, copied in letters and commonplace books, even tacked to coffeehouse walls. Attending to the extensive and surprising life of ephemeral verse repositions Robinson within the Romantic canon, while reframing what it means to be Romantic.

Author: Shelley Jones