Ambiguous Progress and its Poetic Correlatives: Percy’s Reliques and Stadial History

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This article has two central contentions. The first is that the prefatory essays accompanying the second edition of Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1767) constitute an inadequately appreciated form of eighteenth-century historiography. The second is that, in mediating historical material in the form of oral verse artifacts, Thomas Percy was putting into editorial practice the ambivalences of the stadial historian. Both editor and historian were alive to the significance of writing as an index to human progress and, in his redaction of oral artifacts through prosodic crafting and the composition of errata, Percy was acting out the very same obsessions with verse’s historiographical roles that so captured historians such as Adam Ferguson, Adam Smith, and David Hume. In late-Enlightenment history’s various ambiguities of progress and decline, the historian and the poet stand between a self-conscious modernity and an inability to vacate the invigorating permanence of man’s primitive spirit. By circumscribing in sophisticated descriptive terminology the corrective influence of the heroic and the primitive, both Percy and the stadial historians seem at all times aware of their dividedness from the vigor they evoke.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)615-634
Number of pages20
JournalEnglish Literary History
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 11 Jun 2014


  • Percy stadial history antiquarianism literature 18th poetry philosophy ballad

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