Ellen Palmer

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)




Sylvia Bowerbank


The past two decades have seen a growing interest in the formation of British identity in the eighteenth-century. Benedict Anderson drew attention to the arbitrary nature of national identity in his influential Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983), and historians such as Linda Colley, Gerald Newman, and Murray Pittock, among others, have since examined some of the salient issues aiding and resisting the emergence of a coherent sense of Britishness in the eighteenth-century. Literary historians, such as Howard Weinbrot and Katie Trumpener, have begun to explore the role poetry and novels have played in such conceptions of nation. In this study, I build on these initiatives by probing how literary antiquarianism contributed to Britain's emerging nationalism. More specifically, I investigate the tenor, complexion, and scope of the reinventions of the "Gothic" past in selected medieval poetical collections of the latter part of the century. By bringing into relief the national issues at play in collections by James Macpherson, Thomas Percy, Thomas Warton, Evan Evans, and Thomas Chatterton, I illustrate how what seem to be mere debates over literary criticism are indeed pivotal struggles over the way Britishness was being produced. Macpherson's celebration of Celtic liberty in his Ossian poems undermines England's Saxon ancestry; Evan Evans' insistence on the distinct society of the Britons in Wales resists English attempts to absorb Wales' poetic tradition; Percy and Warton construct an assimilative model of the progress of genius that seeks to elide boundaries of difference within Britain; and Chatterton's Rowley poems contrast Bristol's resilient Saxon past with London's Norman influences. Germane to my study is an inquiry into the notion of "Gothic" liberty that was fuelling British nationalism in the first part of the eighteenth century. Built on the idea that the Saxons brought a spirit of liberty with them to England which expedited the rise of Protestantism and the success of the Parliamentary system, "Gothic" liberty was espoused by those with English sympathies. Although works such as James Thomson's "Rule, Britannia" (1740) sought to incorporate all of Britain into this "Gothic" vision, those with allegiances to Celtic identities--the Britons in Wales and the Highland Gaels in particular--were resistant to such a homogenizing notion. The production of medieval poetical collections, beginning with Macpherson's controversial Fragments of Ancient Poetry (1760), drew attention to the ancient divisions haunting Britain's past. As these poetical collections reframed, rehabilitated, and reimagined Britain's medieval past, they manipulated the fraught issues of identity that could either invigorate or threaten to puncture the carefully-cultivated image of the British nation. My study directly compares how these projects promoted competing versions of Britishness, and traces how debates over their "authenticity" ultimately shaped a national approach to literary criticism.

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