That artists are neglected by their contemporaries is a tenacious literary myth. The modernist scenario virtually requires them to linger on the margins of society until the moment—usually posthumous—when the public belatedly discovers their genius, vindicating the dark years of oblivion. De Quincey hiding from the bailiffs, Shelley banished from the land: they appeal to us now in the precise degree that they were estranged from the society of their own day. Obscurity validates their art.

But how representative of literary history is this myth? The neo-classical poets of the eighteenth century were very much men of their time, as were the Metaphysical poets before them; Donne’s Sermons, Raleigh’s sonnets, Pope’s Satires achieved wide circulation in their own day. Poets were politicians, diplomats, public figures. The nineteenth-century novelists had a huge audience. Dickens, Tennyson, George Eliot were...


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