Victorian Poetry Network "much to do with Victorian poetry"

Whether and Whither “Victorian Poetry”? The Dialectics of Field Expansion
Posted by

I have first of all to thank VPN (and especially Alison Chapman and Chris Foss) for putting Toru Dutt on my radar and Linda Hughes for leading me to see Clough’s 1848 “Bothie of Toper-Na-Fuosich” through a transatlantic lens, since I had always before associated Clough more with Italy through “Amours de Voyage” than with America. As someone currently engaged in a study of cosmopolitan and (to speak more anachronistically) cultural citizenship in the mid-19th c, I share the interest and excitement expressed in exploring Victorian poetry as a “complex transnational field of British and Anglophone writers,” an “intrinsically networked field,” in Alison’s apt terms.

For me, these postings collectively resonate with the special issues of Victorian Poetry earlier guest-edited by Linda Hughes in 2003 under the title of “Whither Victorian Poetry?,” in which Joseph Bristow, among the contributors, tellingly posed the question of “whether” we can or should be speaking of a distinct field of “Victorian poetry” at all, given the arbitrary boundaries imposed by what he termed aptly termed a “monarchical moniker.” Developments since then—in transatlantic studies, in the “long nineteenth century,” in studies that approach English literature as continuous with continental European literatures, or that bring the distinctive traditions of Irish and Scottish 19th c literatures into view—have contributed to the more extensive reconfigurations of the field that have helped to generate the timely creation of this Victorian Poetry Network.

That said, I’m struck by the contrast between the postings enthusiastically responding to and participating in the transnationalizing of 19th-c poetry and Isobel Armstrong’s eloquent, somewhat elegiac posting asking, where have all the 19th-century women poets gone, in terms of teaching anthologies at least. Charting the virtual disappearance of the anthologies that brought together such a rich harvest in the 1990s, she points out that many of these are now either out of print or virtually out of print. She also finds that the comprehensive “blockbuster” Victorian poetry anthologies on the market “have drastically narrowed the range of women poets” the gender-specific anthologies made visible, with the result that the historical erasure of 19th-c women poets that characterized the early 20th century seems to happening again in the 21st.

Yet have the recent erasures been only of women poets? And are segregated anthologies delineating a supposedly separate female tradition still the best means of integrating such poets into a more historically accurate and inclusive canon? Granted, anthologies of women poets played a vital role in in the 1980s and ‘90s in counteracting the cultural forgetting of large swathes of literary and culture history. But it is difficult to ask students to buy two anthologies for a class, and in any case, there is so little of any poet one can teach in the space of a term. As I struggle in my own case to provide a representative sampling in the class I still title “Victorian Poetry,” I find that, in the 13 weeks of a survey, as I make room for Letitia Landon, Felicia Hemans, Augusta Webster or Amy Levy (but not, in many cases, most of the other 19th c women poets described by Isobel Armstrong) alongside Tennyson, the Brownings, the Rossettis, and Hopkins, my representation of Matthew Arnold has notably diminished. Whatever the patterns and trends, they are complex and variable. But the question remains, are the transnational energies and gender inclusiveness of current critical studies being carried over into the anthologies we use? And how do we negotiate the dialectic between these energies and the coherence of a field artificially maintained in the past not only by a “monarchical moniker,” but also by segregations along the lines of gender and nation?

Right now, it is not clear to me how the transnational remappings of mid-nineteenth century poetry will translate into anthologies and pedagogical practice (which itself may be increasingly unmoored from anthologies as web resources increase) – a point I would welcome more discussion of on this site. I’m also curious about why these remappings have been such a sign of the times. (I noticed doing a library search recently for new transatlantic criticism that a number of studies under this rubric emanated from NATO and similar political quarters in the very period that brought the development of this now well established area in 19th-c literary scholarship.) But such contexts aside, these remappings do undeniably speak to the constant, intricate circulations of 19th-c writers and their texts across borders that historicist approaches and collections like Meredith L. McGill’s The Traffic in Poems: Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Transatlantic Exchange have uncovered. I am continually reminded of the “intrinsically networked field” Alison speaks of, for example, in currently reading some of the works published by Harriet Martineau in the 1830s that made her such a prominent transatlantic figure (e.g., especially Society in America in 1837) as well as important influence on Victorian poets (in some instances possibly as important as Carlyle? though not recognized to the same degree?) I am beginning to wonder if Martineau may be as significant an influence on the doctrine of “work” in Aurora Leigh as Carlyle, for instance, especially EBB’s approach to women and work. Deborah Logan has been doing wonderful editorial and critical work to bring Martineau back into view. Martineau’s Society in America, by the way, is quite interesting on the English literary “utterance” accorded attention in America in the 1830s – Hemans rather less than one might expect, Byron very little at all, according to Martineau, Wordsworth and others such as Anna Jameson much more.

I was also constantly reminded of the “networked field” of 19th-c poetry in working on the headnotes and annotations for the 5-volume Pickering and Chatto edition of The Works of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (what we came to call simply the WEBB) with Sandra Donaldson (the General Editor) and Beverly Taylor, among others. For example, an advanced Google search helped in tracking down a previously unidentified quotation from Emerson’s “Threnody” in the “Advertisement” to the first edition of Casa Guidi Windows, pointing to one among many connections that invite more investigation. Tracking the composition, American publication and reception of numerous lesser known poems by EBB from the early 1840s also uncovered a more intricate network of transatlantic literary connections than I had previously recognized. These networks cast light on not only the invitation from the Boston antislavery “people” to contribute a poem to The Liberty Bell, and EBB’s subsequent juxtaposition of “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” with “The Cry of the Children” in her collected Poems in 1850, but also the recently recovered draft of EBB’s long lost (but catalogued) ms titled “Ode to America.” In an inspired purchase, this draft was acquired with the ms of EBB’s series “Sonnets in the Night” by Rita Pattison, Director of of the Armstrong Browning Library, in the final stages of work on WEBB. It is published in Volume 5 of the Pickering and Chatto edition, along with many other previously unpublished ms drafts. The value of the ABL acquisition (already considerable) then dramatically increased when Sandy Donaldson, working with Rita, discovered mixed in with the draft of the “Ode to America” a rough draft of Sonnet V of the Sonnets from the Portuguese predating any of the known manuscripts of the sequence catalogued and studied to date. Although EBB never did complete and published an “Ode to America,” some shared lines indicate its connection to the genesis of “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point,” and it is fascinating to see how, within the surviving manuscripts, the fierce anti-slavery poem is so intimately connected to the genesis of the love sonnets, underscoring the deep roots of a connection scholars have long found striking.

An especially suggestive metaphor as well as another instance of translatlantic networks in the mid-19th c comes from EBB’s hit 1844 ballad, or rather “romance of the age,” “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” which echoes the metre and writes back against the celebration of the “wondrous Mother Age” in Tennyson’s “Locksley Hall,” and then is echoed in turn by Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Raven” in his 1845 volume dedicated to EBB as the “noblest of her sex.” This transatlantic web of transmission is nicely conveyed by EBB’s own image for the transatlantic telegraph in “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship,” where she describes it as “wrap[ping] the globe intensely with one hot electric breath”: a metaphor that seems uncannily prophetic of the World Wide Web. In finding delight in such networks, though, I still share Armstrong’s disquiet at what may be lost, or what we may fail to capture, in reconfigurations of the field of Victorian poetry, because, even in case of a poet as seemingly well established as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, a wide range of the poems that made her(arguably) the 19th century’s most internationally influential English woman poet are still not represented in contemporary literary histories, blockbuster anthologies and critical studies. Take “Wine of Cyprus,” for example, a playful Anacreonic drinking poem universally loved by 19-c critics, but still undiscussed today together with the entire tradition of Anacreonic verse in the 19th c (though “Wine of Cyprus” left its mark upon Emily Dickinson, I believe). Even “Lady Geraldine’s Courtship” is seldom taught and anthologized, despite its immense popularity in the 19th c and its much noted impact on Aurora Leigh.

While inevitably many such poems by many poets will remain relatively neglected by all but specialists, the postings thus far on VPN do raise the question of how we can balance the inevitable need to provide some depth and sense of coherence in teaching what we used to called “Victorian poetry” with the seemingly exponential expansions arising out of the dissolving boundaries of national literary histories, following on earlier expansions generated by the recovery of women writers and/or writers whose ethnicity and/or sexuality may have contributed to their historical erasure (Michael Field, for example, or Levy) or the working-class writers whom Florence Boos and Meagan Timney among others have been restoring to view. Pairings of selected poems is one tactic widely used by Victorian poets themselves for varying ends, and also employed productively by recent critics: as in the numerous innovative and suggestive juxtapositions of poems not previously coupled together by Linda Hughes in her 2010 Cambridge Introduction to Victorian Poetry (which integrates work on poets of both genders with a multi-faceted survey of the broader cultural fields shaping Victorian poems). I would welcome more discussion too on VPN of pairings or juxtapositions of poems scholars in the field have found especially useful in teaching, beyond those widely represented in the published criticism (such as the coupling of Rossetti’s “Jenny” and Webster’s “A Castaway”). For example, I have found that juxtaposing Tennyson’s “Charge of the Light Brigade” with EBB’s “Mother and Poet” works very effectively to generate debate, even at the first year level, for example.

Pairings of poems by authors on differing sides of the Atlantic is also a widely used strategy in criticism and teaching on transatlanticism. Might this be a means of organizing more transnational anthologies, while still ensuring the structure of connecting themes, issues, traditions, contexts and innovations? Or is the coherence created by national literary traditions to fundamental to be readily transgressed? What other strategies can we turn to, in order to cope with the historical, formal, and pedagogical challenges of an expanding field in which, increasingly, “relations stop nowhere” and Toru Dutt may be only one among many figures inviting our fuller attention? One possibility I have suggested as the regular contributor of a “Year’s Work” essay on EBB to the journal Victorian Poetry is that we might benefit from additional essays that capture new constellations of writers or issues transforming the field., along with the author-centered annual essays on poets who tend to attract a lot of criticism. Or maybe this is a function that is already being addressed elsewhere (by the forums for instance in Victorian Review) or that might be addressed on VPN itself.

One Response to Whether and Whither “Victorian Poetry”? The Dialectics of Field Expansion

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention Victorian Poetry Network » Archive » Whether and Whither “Victorian Poetry”? The Dialectics of Field Expansion --

Leave a Reply