Victorian Poetry Network "much to do with Victorian poetry"

Measuring popularity
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Tomorrow, 4 October 2013, is National Poetry Day in the UK. This is the beautiful, lyrical, and arresting animation made by Leo Crane to celebrate the 2013 theme of water:


Water, Water: National Poetry Day 2013 from Leo Crane on Vimeo.

While there are many festivities planned (see here), what most struck me in the press coverage so far is the discussion of the nation’s favourite poem. The nation’s favourite. This topic is important to me because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the poems that most Victorians knew. How to measure popularity? And what would the Victorian poetry canon look like if it was organized according to the poems most Victorians read? My graduate course this semester has been grappling with these issues in terms of print culture, and we have been discussing the different ways to measure and quantify circulation and readership. It is a vexed topic, but it is clear that the kinds of poems most Victorians read are not equivalent to those poems that are canonised between the covers of our teaching anthologies. What are the differences and interconnections between “serious” and “popular” poetry? And how does popular poetry construct a sense of community and national belonging in readers?

Writing in the Guardian, the producer of a popular long-running BBC Radio 4 programme Poetry Please, Tim Dee, takes the “poetic pulse” of the nation by listing the ten most requested poems. Dee also describes the plentiful correspondence from listeners that ask to hear poems that hold private meaningful in their lives. For the listeners of the programme, poetry is consolation, but also memorialization and tribute. And poetry is also part of everyday life. The letters to Poetry Please are vividly described by Dee as

a kind of cardiogram of the country written through its poetry and lodged in four grey metal drawers in the corner of a room in Bristol.

Readers of nineteenth-century poetry will understand the special correlation between the  heart beat and the poem, and the power that affect has to produce communities of readers through the local, national, and transnational circulation of poetry. (See for example, recent books cited below by Kirstie Blair and Catherine Robson).

Four of the most broadcast poems on Poetry Please are Victorian poems: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways,”  Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush,” Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach,” and Christina Rossetti’s “Remember.” Another poet with a metaphorical toe in the Victorian era, Walter De La Mare, makes the top ten (with “The Listeners”). What does this list tell us about the particular community that listen and write to Poetry Please, and about the enduring appeal of Victorian poetry? And how has and will this list changed over time?

Works Cited

Kirstie Blair, Victorian Poetry and the Culture of the Heart (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006)

Catherine Robson, Heart Beats: Everyday Life and the Memorized Poem (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2012)


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