New Issue of Victorian Poetry: 48:3 (Fall 2010), including the “Year’s Work”

The Fall 2010 issue of Victorian Poetry has arrived, containing the following articles:

  • “What is Haunting Tennyson’s Maud (1855)?” by Francis O’Gorman
  • “The Becoming Character of Tennyson’s Simeon Stylites” by Devon Fisher
  • “Laying Claim: George Saintsbury’s Assessment of Matthew Arnold” by Anthony Kearney

There is also a book review by Ana Parejo Vadillo of Sharon Bickle’s The Fowl and the Pussycat: Love Letters of Michael Field (1876-1909).

Much of the issue is devoted to the “Guide to the Year’s Work” in Victorian Poetry, with an additional new category this year: “Victorian Women Poets,” written by Alison Chapman.  The entries on the Brownings — especially Marjorie Stone’s on EBB — look especially full this year.

Here is the text of my entry on “General Materials”:

The past year has seen the publication of several important volumes with reference to the study of nineteenth-century book history.  I have to pass briefly over the magisterial two-volume Oxford Companion to the Book (2010), edited by Michael Suarez and H.R. Woudhuysen, only remarking on its encyclopedic coverage of names and subjects associated with the history of writing and printing in a global frame of reference.  This is an indispensable resource that any scholar with an interest in book history will want to own. More directly focused on our chosen period and nation are The Cambridge History of the Book in Britain, volume 6: 1830-1914, edited by David McKitterick; and The History of the Book in the West: 1800-1914, edited by Stephen Colclough and Alexis Weedon.  Both of these are part of multi-volume serial histories, each volume comprised of essays on topics and themes related to the nineteenth century world of printing, publishing, and bookselling.

The McKitterick Cambridge History is of major significance, in that it presents twenty newly-commissioned essays on the central themes of the era, with experts offering synoptic introductions to subjects such as illustration, serials, distribution, reading, and mass markets.  In addition, McKitterick’s 70+ page introduction is an invaluable guide to the Victorian period and the issues in the history of the book that it most urgently raises.  Far from being a narrow disciplinary survey, this introduction proceeds under the sensible assumption that the history of the book is inseparable from a general understanding of the politics, technology, commerce, and demographics of the era.  And indeed, the whole volume carries with it a welcome sense of the larger culture as it related to developments in the world of print. Accordingly, there are sections on children’s books, religious publications, leisure books (such as those for cookery, sport, gardening, and travel), and scientific communications.  Attention is also paid to book production and distribution in a global frame of reference, particularly in a chapter called “A Place in the World,” wherein the reaches of the British empire are connected to the reach of the printed word.  Scholars of Victorian poetry may find a smaller portion of the Cambridge History devoted to their particular subject than they would like; but the vibrant and rich chapters on authorship (by Patrick Leary and Andrew Nash), copyright (by Catherine Seville), literature (by Simon Eliot and Andrew Nash), and other subjects will be obviously relevant.  McKitterick himself contributes several excellent essays, including an engaging one on “Second-hand and old books” in the period. The Cambridge History concludes with a call from William St. Clair for a more ambitious book history, in part renovated by current technologies and the empirical evidence they can help us obtain.  This volume will surely inspire and enable more nuanced and sophisticated scholarship with reference to the Victorian and Edwardian book.

Colclough and Weedon’s The History of the Book in the West: 1800-1914 is a somewhat miscellaneous but still valuable production, gathering and reprinting a range of twenty one previously-published essays on topics relevant to the nineteenth-century history of the book.  Particularly interesting to Victorian literary scholars will be separate essays by Peter Shillingsburg and Kate Flint on Vanity Fair, and surveys of publication and printing practices in the period by Simon Eliot, Allan Dooley, and James Barnes. Also of note are pieces by George Landow, Angus Phillips, and Simone Murray under the heading, “The Digital Book.” The volume offers itself as “a library of critical essays,” each of them useful in its own way and also part of an emergent picture of the nineteenth-century history of the book.

In 2007, Herbert Tucker’s Epic: Britain’s Heroic Muse, 1790-1910 reopened the subject of the Victorian long poem in a major way. This past year has seen two studies that follow on its line of investigation: Monique R. Morgan’s Narrative Means, Lyric Ends: Temporality in the Nineteenth-Century Long Poem and Clinton Machann’s Masculinity in Four Victorian Epics: A Darwinist Reading.  Both studies focus on four long poems in pursuing their analysis, and both include Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh and Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book as two of the four.  Morgan starts her study earlier, with Byron’s Don Juan and Wordsworth’s Prelude, providing the Romantic grounding for the fortunes of the lyric impulse in an age of narrative.  Machann instead looks to Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and Clough’s Amours de Voyage in his study predicated on the centrality of masculinity and its discontents in framing our understanding of Victorian poetry. Taken together, these two books bear witness to the renewed critical interest in the long poems of the Victorian era and give us new tools for taking their measures.

In Narrative Means, Lyric Ends, Monique Morgan is focused on the convergence of the poetic and the novelistic in the long poems of the nineteenth-century, paying particular attention to the temporality of these genres.  Necessarily yoked to time’s arrow and the logic of causality, narrative in Morgan’s view operates according to different principles than the timeless, associative lyric.  Morgan presents the long poems of Byron and Wordsworth as two relatively split experiments, wherein Don Juan hews close to narrative and The Prelude embraces lyric for all it is worth, despite the “productive tension” in both with the opposite genre (4).  Poems by the Brownings – that is, the Victorian poems – enact a more through integration of narrative and lyric modes, observable in their association with the dramatic monologue and their self-reflexive structures of composition.  Yet all four epics share a common pursuit: the manipulation of narrative technique to create lyric effects, a process that often tends to present episodes and events as occurring in overlapping, simultaneous ways.  Various formal aspects of the verse (EBB’s similes, RB’s alliteration) contribute to the disrupted temporality of the narrative, producing what Morgan calls “lyric ends.”  Morgan’s book is a searching examination of genre in nineteenth-century poetry, and its great value lies in the nuanced conceptions and markers she locates in the works she examines.  One comes away from the book energized by the richness of generic interplay at work in these key poems, and also enabled by Morgan’s methods to expand their application to the range of nineteenth-century works that were busy negotiating the competing claims of the (Romantic and post-Romantic) lyric and the novel.  As Morgan shows us, they often did so by experimenting with temporality, suggesting that perhaps Wells’s Time Traveler should be thought of as one of the master metaphors for the Victorian reader, navigating the strangely recursive and simultaneous landscapes of nineteenth-century verse.

Clinton Machann’s Masculinity in Four Victorian Epics approaches the long poem by way of gender, not as a socially-constructed category but as involved with the essentials of biology.  Subtitled “a Darwinist reading,” Machann’s study aims to cut across the lines of recent gender theory as it has been applied to literary texts, reasserting the claims of embodied human nature.  While he concedes that ideas about gender are socially constructed, Machann argues that such constructions must have some foundation in the biological, and calls for a renewed attention to the “universal human experiences” of the body.  Four chapters take us through his chosen epics (cited above) and their engagements with issues surrounding Victorian masculinity, while also providing a biographical context for each poem’s composition and helpful précis of its contents.  The book is primarily engaged with analyzing the thoughts, words, and deeds of the leading men – Tennyson’s Arthur, Barrett Browning’s Romney, Clough’s Claude, and Browning’s Guido – as they negotiate codes of masculine behavior; it turns out that all fail in some significant way. Each chapter has a brief discussion of the biological bases of some of this, but I believe the true value of Machann’s book lies in its mature and thoughtful rendering of the poems it takes up, as well as in its interested attention to the shaping pressures of masculinity and the problem of male violence.  A brief conclusion returns to the case for a consideration of “the context of human nature”(142) in literary studies, and the interrelations of culture and biology.  Although traditional in some respects, Machann’s study offers a radical potential challenge to the field, implicitly asking us to confront anew the critical implications of Matthew Arnold’s claim in “The Buried Life,” that “the same heart beats in every human breast.”

Two books have appeared this year attending to the concept of tradition as it shaped and was shaped by nineteenth-century poetry written by women. In Sensibility and Female Poetic Tradition, 1780-1860, Claire Knowles traces a line of influence from Charlotte Smith through Elizabeth Barrett Browning, moving through Romanticism to the mid-Victorian era.  She argues for the centrality of Smith, especially her Elegiac Sonnets (1784) to a developing culture of the melancholy female poet, a tradition that includes Susan Evance, Letitita Landon, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.  As Knowles presents it, Smith’s legacy is strongest in its movement of the female poet’s physical body onto the poetic stage, in pursuit of a mode of writing that would merge the rhetorical power of sensibility with the sincerity associated with personal suffering.  It all remains a performance, to some degree – but women writing in the line of Smith evoked a sympathetic readership by inhabiting the character of the sorrowing poet, implicitly inviting their readers to feel along with them.  Re-grounding sensibility in sincerity after the theatrical excesses of the Della Cruscans, Smith created a “melancholy approach to poetic production”(15) that became a vital tradition for female poets at least through Sylvia Plath.  The Victorian era saw a broad transition away from sensibility towards sentimentality, a mode that Knowles associates with containment and consolation as opposed to the immersive unruliness of sensibility. Landon maintains her allegiance to sensibility in the face of Victorian sentiment (represented for Knowles by Felicia Hemans), a commitment that is involved with her unhappy and transgressive personal affairs; but Barrett Browning emerges as a champion of the sentimental, a position given greater depth and meaning when read as part of the female tradition that Knowles explicates and that Barrett Browning consciously disavows, or deploys to reshape into a kind of politicized sentimentality.  Knowles’s study provides fascinating ways of thinking about the relationship of autobiography and the body to the articulation of poetry in the nineteenth-century, and sharply recasts our understanding of sensibility and sentimentality as they evolved through the Romantic and Victorian eras.  The terms and formulations that Knowles provides should become useful in the hands of other scholars of poetry – especially of women’s poetry — written in the long, continuing wake of Charlotte Smith.

In Christian and Lyric Tradition in Victorian Women’s Poetry, F. Elizabeth Gray trains her attention on the wide range of Christian poetry written by women during the period, noting that it has long constituted a serious blind spot for literary historians.  Choosing not to subdivide the project by the poets’ denominations (Anglicans, Catholics, Unitarians, and Quakers all sit side-by-side here), Gray makes the case that such poetry constitutes a “discrete body of work” (5) that deserves our attention.  We tend to acknowledge the immense popularity of Victorian devotional poetry but we focus on limit cases such as Christina Rossetti and Hopkins; Gray shows how wide and variegated this work was, and how complex were its engagements with faith, with gender, and with the lyric, even as it found a home in the conventional.  Focusing on lyrics that take the speaker’s relationship to God as their subject, Gray finds a surprising power in this work. Biblical language, characters, and parables are obviously deeply integrated into the verse; but, far from inspiring timid echoes, religious texts (the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, sermons) seem to have encouraged female poets to engage in various forms of appropriative re-writing, as they simultaneously negotiated their authorial, exegetical, and devotional ends. Many of the figures discussed in Gray’s book are minor or virtually unknown; and Gray does not take many steps towards canonical poets or the larger frames of Victorian studies.  Yet the book provides a valuable and much-needed portrait of this nexus of gender, genre, and culture in the Victorian era.  Furthermore, it reminds us of the need to confront the larger, popular currents of nineteenth-century verse in our literary histories, which will likely involve a rethinking of categories such as the sentimental and the conventional, not to mention a reconsideration of the ways we deal with religious faith.  In this way, Gray’s study connects back to the issues of book history raised at the outset of this review: as we survey the products of the Victorian press in the aggregate, we are encouraged to see the poetry in terms of its distribution, circulation, and reception.  Gray’s work suggests the ubiquity of religious or devotional poetry in the Victorian archive; and Christian and Lyric Tradition in Victorian Women’s Poetry promises to re-awaken interest in that body of printed material that meant so much to its Victorian readership.



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