Perhaps the most famous Victorian New Year’s resolution was the one that Robert Browning made in 1853 to write a poem a day. He kept to it for three days, four at the most, but one of the poems he wrote was “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came.”

(Let’s just say that would be  like me resolving to write a 1,000-word blog post every day and finishing my dissertation by Thursday.)

Nevertheless, it’s in this spirit that I am making my own resolution, one that has to do both with Victorian poetry and this blog. Basically, it’s this. I’m going to rediscover the wonders of The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse. I will do so on this blog, sharing a poem a week from this collection along with whatever commentary I see fit.

The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse was first published in 1912, with selections by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, the first Professor of English at Cambridge. (In an amusing turn, he includes some of his own poetry.) It was intended as something of a supplement to his earlier anthology, The Oxford Book of English Verse 1250-1900. (This one is available in full on Google books; the Victorian one isn’t. Unfortunately, whoever did the hyperlinks didn’t realize that the numbers in the index referred to poem numbers, not page numbers, so it’s kind of difficult to navigate.)

I have sort of a lazy, passing interest in these kinds of anthologies–kind of a mixture of curiosity and the allure of possibly being able to have obscure bits of poetry and prose on hand. I bought a copy of this a couple of years ago at a used bookstore in St Louis. (I have the 1955 printing, the same one available in snippet view on Google books. It doesn’t appear to be a new edition, though given the inclusion of people like Hopkins, some things must have been added later.) I remember flipping through it at the time and remarking that it had pretty much every Victorian poet I’d ever heard of and about a hundred others, as it goes from Walter Savage Landor to Lascalles Abercrombie. But, mostly, it’s just ended up sitting on my shelf next to other anthologies like The World of the Victorians, Victorians on Literature and Art, the Viking Portable Victorian Reader, and more recent collections like the Penguin Book of Victorian Verse and Victorian Woman Poets: An Annotated Anthology.

Today, however, Quiller-Couch seems mostly famous as the representative of a practice of English literature as a “soft” discipline, a kind of educational sop to women and the working classes to which the New Criticism was meant to respond and correct. In that sense, of course, Quiller-Couch himself could be seen as representing a kind of embarrassingly “Victorian” sense of taste.

These, of course, were magic words for me, ensuring that I would become completely obsessed with the anthology.  I’ve moved it to my desk from the bookshelf so that it can be closer at hand when I have a distracting question. I’ve already established, for instance, that it includes three sonnets by Lord Alfred Douglas but only one poem by Wilde, and that even the poets I’ve heard of are often represented here by poems that I haven’t. The collection at least nods to the transatlantic, including poems by the likes of Emerson, Whitman, Dickinson, and Poe. We’re about half and half on poets included in Virginia Blain’s Victorian Women Poets anthology–yes on Augusta Webster, Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, and Amy Levy, but no on Emily Pfeiffer and Felicia Hemans. Michael Field is followed by James Joyce and Ezra Pound, neither of whom we would think of as Victorians. There’s a brief editorial preface, but no scholarly apparatus to speak of. The poems are arranged by their authors’ dates of birth, without more specific dating, but perhaps I only find this irritating (or worth mentioning because I’m me).

And I can’t wait to read more, to figure out who these people are, to wonder why certain poems were chosen, to think about the conception of the Victorian that is being presented here–especially as, in a sense, it was almost immediately superseded and dismissed. In a certain sense, it changes the entire discussion that we have (both in Victorian poetry and Victorian literature more generally) about how a text gets lost and then rediscovered–and even whether there’s a greater emphasis placed on going and retrieving a poet from the archives of literary annuals and other periodicals than there is in flipping through an anthology like this one and wondering who Sir Lewis Morris is. (I swear I just opened the book to a random page and got that.)

My first post will likely be tomorrow, where I’m mostly going to talk about the intro and the  logic behind the anthology. After that, sometime each Sunday/Monday, I’ll choose a new-to-me poem from the text to talk about. In the case of supercrazynoncanonical poets I’ll see what I can find about them on Google. I plan to try to keep this up at least through the spring semester. After that, who knows?

Tangentially: Robert Langbaum’s The Poetry of Experience seems like it’s becoming increasingly unavoidable. Anyone read it? Anyone want to read it?

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