January 2009

I’ve always wondered just what books I ought to be ashamed not to have read as a Victorianist. There are some obvious ones (which I’m not going to share in this space), but do I have to feel guilty about not having read Barchester Towers? I’ve got several tabs open of the lists Maggie linked to in the last post, so here’s what seems to be the consensus of the utterly canonical works for Victorian fiction and non-fiction prose:

Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy

Jane Austen (one or two)

Mary Elizabeth Braddon, Lady Audley’s Secret (every single list seemed to have this)

Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre

Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights

Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus

Wilkie Collins, The Moonstone

Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Great Expectations

George Eliot, Middlemarch

Elizabeth Gaskell, (one novel)

Thomas Hardy, Tess of the d’Urbervilles

John Stuart Mill, On Liberty, The Subjection of Women

Walter Pater, The Renaissance

John Ruskin, (whatever tends to get anthologized)

Olive Schreiner, The Story of an African Farm (I was a bit surprised that it featured on so many lists)

Bram Stoker, Dracula

William Makepeace Thackaray, Vanity Fair

Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now

Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

I’ve excluded poetry not just to spite Anne, but because I feel like it’s easier to grasp what’s super-canonical by reading anthologies. Any surprising omissions or inclusions? I’m feeling a bit less guilty that I haven’t read Barchester Towers, although that was pretty close to making it to this short list.

We decided to spend this semester focusing on just what our field means. Also, two of us, including yours truly, are preparing for orals. What does the internets have to say about what C19 lit is? Maggie Galvan, compiled the following list of links to lists (which might have more links?). 



Claremont Graduate School (18th-20th c. lists):



from Sharon Marcus:





Georgia State University:


University of Houston:


University of New Mexico:


Notre Dame:


University of Sheffield (Criticism on 19th c. literature):


Graduate English Students Association at UVA (Victorian-Modern):




Victoria & Albert Museum

19th Century Fashion:


Theatre History:


Someone’s personal 19th c. asylums reading list:



Due to poor time management skills on the part of yours truly, the Poem of the Week will appear, well, slightly later in the week. (I should add, however, that this is not for lack of trying.)

In my absence, please enjoy this poem by Coleridge, who falls somewhat outside the purview of the OBVV. I present it with no context (okay, fine, British political fallout from the French Revolution) and little occasion, other than the coincidence of its allegorical figure with the new Lunar Year. Enjoy.

Recantation, Illustrated in the Story of the Mad Ox ( 1798 )

An Ox, long fed with musty hay,

And work’d with yoke and chain,

Was turn’d out on an April day,

When fields are in their best array,

And growing grasses sparkle gay,

At once with sun and rain.

The grass was fine, the sun was bright,

With truth I may aver it;

The Ox was glad, as well he might,

Thought a green meadow no bad sight,

And frisk’d to shew his huge delight,

Much like a beast of spirit.

“Stop, neighbours! stop! why these alarms?

“The Ox is only glad.” —

But still they pour from cots and farms–

Halloo! the Parish is up in arms

(A hoaxing hunt has always charms)


The frighted beast scamper’d about,

Plunge! thro’ the hedge he drove—

The mob pursue with hideous rout,

A bull-dog fastens on his snout,

He gores the dog, his tongue hangs out—

He’s mad, he’s mad, by Jove!

“Stop, neighbours, stop!” aloud did call

A sage of sober hue.

But all at once on him they fall,

And women squeak and children squall,

“What! would you have him toss us all!

“And damme! who are you?”

Ah hapless sage! his ears they stun,

And curse him o’er and o’er–

“You bloody-minded dog!” (cries one)

“To slit your windpipe were good fun–

” ‘Od bl– you for an impious son

“Of a presbyterian w—re!”

“You’d have him gore the parish priest,

“And run against the altar–

“You Fiend!”–The sage his warnings ceas’d,

And North, and South, and West, and East,

Halloo! They follow the poor beast,

Mat, Dick, Tom, Bob, and Walter.

Old Lewis, ’twas his evil day,

Stood trembling in his shoes;

The Ox was his–what could he say?

His legs were stiffen’d with dismay,

The Ox ran o’er him mid the fray,

And gave him his death’s bruise.

The frighted beast ran on–but here,

The gospel scarce more true is–

My muse stops short in mid career–

Nay! gentle reader! do not sneer,

I cannot chuse but drop a tear,

A tear for good old Lewis.

The frighted beast ran thro’ the town,

All follow’d, boy and dad,

Bulldog, Parson, Shopman, Clown,

The Publicans rushed from the Crown,

“Halloo! hamstring him! cut him down!”

They drove the poor Ox mad.

Should you a Rat to madness teize,

Why even a Rat might plague you:

There’s no Philosopher but sees,

That Rage and Fear are one disease–

Tho’ that may burn and this may freeze,

They’re both alike the ague.

And so this Ox in frantic mood

Faced round like any Bull–

The mob turn’d tail, and he pursued,

Till they with fright and fear were stew’d,

And not a chick of all this brood,

But had his belly full.

Old Nick’s astride the beast, ’tis clear–

Old Nicholas to a tittle!

But all agree, he’d disappear,

Would but the parson venture near,

And thro’ his teeth right o’er the steer,

Squirt out some fasting spittle.

Achilles was a warrior fleet,

The Trojans he could worry–

Our parson too was swift of feet,

But shew’d it chiefly in retreat!

The victor Ox scour’d down the street,

The mob fled hurry-scurry.

Thro’ gardens, lanes, and fields new-plough’d,

Thro’ his hedge and thro’ her hedge,

He plung’d, and toss’d, and bellowed loud,

Till in his madness he grew proud,

To see his helter skelter crowd,

That had more wrath than courage.

Alas! to mend the breaches wide

He made for these poor ninnies,

They all must work, whate’er betide,

Both days and months and pay beside,

(Sad news for Avarice and for Pride)

A sight of golden guineas.

But here once more to view did pop

The man that kept his senses.

And now he cried–“Stop, neighbours! stop!

“The Ox is mad! I would not swop,

“No, not a schoolboy’s farthing top,

“For all the parish fences.

“The Ox is mad! Ho! Dick, Bob, Mat!

What means this coward fuss?

“Ho! stretch this rope across the plat–

” ‘Twill trip him up–or if not that,

“Why damme! we must lay him flat–

“See, here’s my blunderbuss!”

“A lying dog! Just now he said,

“The Ox was only glad.

“Let’s break his presbyterian head!”–

“Hush! (quoth the sage) you’ve been misled,

“No quarrels now–let’s all make head–

You drove the poor Ox mad!

As thus I sat in careless chat,

With the morning’s wet newspaper,

In eager haste, without his hat,

As blind and blundering as a bat,

In came that fierce aristocrat,

Our pursy Woolen-draper,

And so my Muse perforce drew bit,

And in he rush’d and panted–

“Well, have you heard”–“No, not a whit.”

“What, ha’nt you heard?”–“Come out with it–”

“That Tierney votes for Mister Pitt,

“And Sheridan’s recanted.

I admit that this was somewhat longer than I expected for a throwaway post. Nevertheless, there’s some timeliness to it yet, no?

[Ed. note: can anybody fill me and other thick short-nineteenth centuryists about the political allegory and its timeliness? I found this here:  

The following Fable was written during the Terror of the Invasion, when Sheridan made that celebrated Anti-gallican Oration, & Tierney voted with Mr Pitt for the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act. — At the time all the Ministerial Papers were full of Tierney’s & Sheridan’s Recan recantation — & to expose the falsehood of this phrase & the idea implied in it is the end of the Fable. —

I’m still unenlightened, since all wikipedia’s telling me about Sheridan is that he was practically the only MP of his time challenged to a duel.
Also, here seems to be a good place to give a shoutout to the new Grad Center Romanticism group, which has an impressive-looking blog at cunyromantics.wordpress.com. We’ll link to it at the sidebar once I get around to updating the links.]

This semester, we will be meeting at 2:30 on the first and third Wednesday of each month, beginning on February 4th. Our focus this semester will be discussing the state of the field and our place within it. Rather than making a strict distinction between reading/working meetings, we’ll combine the two, looking at general professionalization issues and, as always, helping people with their works in progress. For the readings, we have decided to focus on journals and articles that are readily available in electronic format (i.e. no more going to the Grad Center just to copy something). 

For February 4th, I will, lest I be everlastingly ashamed, workshop a paper on The Trial for a special issue on Charlotte Yonge. We will also be discussing the hottest, sexiest, digi-tastic research resources available for us long-nineteenth-century-ists. We’re interested in finding out your research strategies, too–where do you start searching? What sites keep you up to date on the latest scholarship? What do you wish you were more knowledgeable about?

Poetry was his addiction.

–Jonathan Bate, from the introduction to ‘I Am’: The Selected Poetry of John Clare

John Clare (1793-1864) gets three entries in the OBVV–something less than 1/1000th of his total output, about 3,500 poems, according to Jonathan Bate. #34 dates to sometime in the mid-1840s while he was, in fact, committed to the Northampton County Asylum. (This wasn’t the first time, either. The prose account of his earlier escape from a different asylum is pretty amazing.) This is actually a fairly famous poem, though it’s usually talked about today as “I am”–though it’s not the “I Am” sonnet, as you’ll see:

I am! yet what I am who cares, or knows?

My friends forsake me like a memory lost.

I am the self-consumer of my woes;

They rise and vanish, an oblivious host,

Shadows of life, whose very soul is lost,

And yet I am–I live–though I am toss’d


Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,

Into the living sea of waking dream,

Where there is neither sense of life, nor joys,

But the huge shipwreck of my own esteem

And all that’s dear. Even those I loved the best

Are strange–nay, they are stranger than the rest.


I long for scenes where man has never trod–

For scenes where woman never smiled or wept–

There to abide with my Creator, God,

And sleep as I in childhood sweetly slept,

Full of high thoughts, unborn. So let me lie,–

The grass below; above, the vaulted sky.

Damn, I love this poem. I should  note, of course, that I’ve kept the wording and punctuation as they are in the OBVV; there are a number of variations from what Bate, using a somewhat different editorial principle, has in his collection. This is not insignificant in terms of Clare studies, where editing and the ownership of the edited works are much in doubt. You can read all about it on Wikipedia. Here you can also read about Clare’s pretty fantastically varied life as the much-celebrated (and fetishized) “Peasant Poet.”

I first encountered Clare in a graduate seminar a few years back that paired him with Coleridge and Shelley. I had a hard time getting into his poetry then–my interests were in a different place and I was mostly trying to figure out Kant’s Analytic of the Sublime and Coleridge in general. Coming back to it now, though, I’m just really struck by the beauty of the thing, which is why I’m sharing it here.

Of course, Clare by now has been pretty firmly reclaimed by Romanticists (in a much more forceful and concerted way than, say, Landor). One exception in this regard may be Isobel Armstrong, who considers Clare and Matthew Arnold together in a chapter in Victorian Poetry. (I think this was an argument about masculinity, but I’m kind of fuzzy on its contours.) Nevertheless, thinking through all these issues in relation to Clare can be kind of headspinning–how do you classify someone who was so marginal to so many of these circles yet who occasionally/often better expresses the ideals of those circles than their central exponents. (You want language as it is really spoken by men? You got it.) On some levels he appears to be sui generis. On others he seems to have absorbed the poetry of his time (and of the eighteenth century) better than anyone else. It’s hard for me to think of this poem as being contemporaneous with the Tennyson of the 1840s. The dude outlived Wordsworth by fourteen years, but he did so in a lunatic asylum. And so on.

So, instead of doing all this headspinning–the Romanticists can have that for today–I’ll just go back to what’s really important here. This poem is amazing, right up there, for me, with Coleridge’s “Dejection: An Ode.”

Okay, so since approximately nine people have forwarded it to me–and since it was discussed pretty intensely on the VICTORIA list, I suppose I have to be the one to mention here that earlier this week, the Guardian reported something that all of us in this semi-private club already know: that reading Victorian novels totally makes us better, more cooperative, more Dorothea Brooke-like people. Or something.

I refer, of course, to Wednesday’s article, “Victorian novels helped us evolve into better people, say psychologists.” I’m not going to go into much detail on it or quote from the article–it’s more or less what it says, and the reaction has been more or less predictable, if you can make it through the comments page and the VICTORIA thread. (I do think that spec, one of the Guardian commenters, makes an excellent point, though.) And, of course, I’m something of an outsider to all this, since Rod Blagojevich rather forcefully demonstrated that Victorian poetry is poor insurance against being an asshat.

On the same day, we also got John Sutherland’s Guardian blog post, “Believing in 19th century novels.” He talks about a man named Bill Stone, recently deceased at the age of 109, as one of the last incarnations of “Victorian values”–the same ones, we infer, being communicated through the novels:

Newborn as he was when it ended, Stone’s life explains much about the huge global success that Britain enjoyed in the 19th Century. He and his kind believed in country, King (or Queen), and God. A whole cluster of other beliefs spun off from this core: duty, decency, marital fidelity, paying your way, doing your bit, playing fair.

You probably don’t need me to poke holes into this. Sutherland concedes that the whole thing might well be a delusion, but argues that Stone (as an individual) and England (as a country) was better off for having held it.

I don’t actually have a problem with the premise that Victorian novels (at  least some Victorian novels–Sutherland’s own research has been crucial in demonstrating just how hard it is to generalize about them) had a role in promoting certain values, or that books can influence their readers in all kinds of ways. (Picture of Dorian Gray, anyone?)

However, the way I see it, the major flaw in all of this is the focus on characters. If you read the first article, you’ll see that the study’s methodology involved asking scholars to fill out a questionnaire on certain characters from (canonical) Victorian novels. (In fact, as one VICTORIA contributor realized, the researcher had actually distributed the survey on the list itself–and I’m pretty sure, thinking back, that I myself may have participated.) That assumes that the only thing we get out of reading a Victorian novel is the identification with characters, and that readers are only interested in plot insofar as it develops characters’ identities, punishes the bad, vindicates the good, and so on. It also assumes that the only way that novels influence their readers is through these seemingly  unmediated identifications with individual characters.

And that all seems kind of stupid; it flattens 0ut the complexity of what happens between the text and reader in even a casual reading experience. The not-stupid version of this argument would be something like the premise of Caroline Levine’s excellent 2003 book, The Serious Pleasures of Suspense. Levine argues that Victorian realist novels provided a kind of “epistemological training” that encouraged readers to become more skillful and critical, to consider all the possibilities before making a decision, to respect the otherness of the world and the limits of sympathy–and that such reading practices could be translated into other areas of life, such as science and politics.

We’ll notice, of course, that “suspension of judgment” or “skepticism about received ideas” doesn’t make Sutherland’s list of Victorian values, but I’d say it’s at least as important as something like “duty.” The Victorians weren’t perfect, but I give people like, say, Matthew Arnold a lot of credit for promoting the importance of a good-faith inquiry and the effort to disabuse oneself of preconceived notions.

But that, of course, doesn’t make for a pithy headline. It’s something that’s intangible, and it doesn’t quite provide that pungent nineteenth-century antidote to a twenty-first century problem. (If anything, skepticism is seen as a more “postmodern” problem, something that distracts us from duty and cooperation.) But it’s frustrating, sometimes, to see articles like this because, when it comes down to it, I do think that there’s a lot we gain by reading Victorian novels (or literature in general, for that matter)–just not in the ways that this study suggests.

As per my earlier-announced New Year’s resolution, I’m blogging my way through The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse.  All of these entries can be found under the “Poem of the Week” tag.

From nineteen almost to ninety his intellectual and literary activity was indefatigably incessant; but, herein at least like Charles Lamb, whose cordial admiration he so cordially returned, he could not write a note of three lines which did not bear the mark of his Roman hand in its matchless and inimitable command of a style at once the most powerful and the purest of his age.  —Swinburne on Landor

The first seventeen poems in the Oxford Book of Victorian Verse (hereafter the OBVV) are by Walter Savage Landor (1775-1864). Number 3 is “Ianthe,” first published in 1831, with some revisions in 1846. (N.B. I mentioned earlier that the OBVV doesn’t do dates–my source here is the excellent Representative Poetry Online.)

Ianthe! you are called to cross the sea!

     A path forbidden me!

Remember, while the Sun his blessing sheds

     Upon the mountain-heads,

How often we have watch’d him laying down

     His brow, and dropt our own

Against each other’s, and how faint and short

     And sliding the support!

What will succeed it now? Mine is unblest,

     Ianthe! nor will rest

But on the very thought that swells with pain.

     O bid me hope again!

O give me back what Earth, what (without you)

     Not Heaven itself can do–

One of the golden days that we have past;

     And let it be my last!

Or else the gift would be, however sweet,

     Fragile and incomplete.

The RPO editor somewhat dryly notes that Ianthe “was probably called to cross the sea to Ireland.”

Landor has a pretty fantastic Wikipedia page that describes his work as a prose writer and poet, as well as a colorful life that put him in contact with both Romantic and Victorian figures, and also involved quite a few crazy/catastrophic events that were only sometimes caused by seemingly erratic behavior. (To wit: “By a succession of bizarre actions, he was successively thrown out of Rugby, Oxford and from time to time from the family home.” “On one occasion he netted and threw in the river a local farmer who objected to his fishing on his property.”) 

This poem seems to me to be very “Victorian” in a number of ways, most obviously in its articulation of loss and in the idealization of what has been lost. There’s something about the way the lines alternate length that recalls Browning’s “Love Among the Ruins“–and I’m particularly taken with the “Fragile and incomplete” last line.

But of course one of the things that’s clear even from the Wikipedia page is that Landor was an old man  by the time the Victorian period really got underway. Landor lived longer than either Tennyson or Browning, and his output was certainly prodigious. But because his long life spanned the Romantic and Victorian periods, he may have to a certain extent fallen through the cracks–despite being immortalized by Dickens as the litigious Boythern in Bleak House and having had his life written by Forster, better known as Dickens’ first biographer. 

The people studying him today (so far as I can tell from a quick MLA subject database search) seem to be Romanticists taking advantage of the expanded definition of “Romanticism” that’s become more common over the last 25-30 years.

One wonders, of course, whether Gebir, the poem that appears to have established his poetic reputation, would be more widely read today had it not come out in 1798, the same year that Lyrical Ballads was published….

Next Page »