Note: I resolved in my last post to blog The Oxford Book of Victorian Verse during the spring semester. Most of the time I will be picking poems more or less at random to share with all of you. For this first post, however, some initial impressions on the anthology as a whole.

For my part, after many months spent in close study of Victorian verse–re-reading old favourites and eagerly making acquaintance with much that was new to me–I rise from the task in reverence and wonder not only at the mass (not easily sized) of poetry written with ardour in these less-than-a-hundred years, but at the amount of it which is excellent, and the height of some of that excellence…  (from the preface)

There’s something a bit seductive about an anthology that describes its principle of selection as “my old rule of choosing what seems to me the best, and for that sole reason.” The sophisticated reader on my shoulder tells me that this is wrong, that it is complicated, that it is just as problematic as the Arnoldian critical vision it implicitly echoes: that of identifying and disseminating the best that has been thought and said. I probably don’t need to lay that out for anyone reading here.

But I guess what makes me linger more than half-admiringly on this line is its sense of confidence, that such a selection principle is somehow “enough”–whatever that means–to justify a text of nearly a thousand pages of Victorian poems, with virtually no scholarly apparatus, just because they’re that good and this book should exist. And I know this in itself isn’t unproblematic, either, but it approaches a spirit that I try to keep in play as I carry out my own work: not so much uncritical appreciation, but perhaps a willingness to trust in something being “good” even if I can’t fully explain why that should matter.

And, on a more practical level, I think this book does an admirable job in the range of poets presented.  While Q-C says that he’s not in the business of “recapturing fugitive, half-forgotten poems–frail things that by one chance or another cheated of their day have passed down to Limbo,” many of the pieces contained herein have become just that in the last alm0st-century. I doubt that even the most assiduous scholars of Victorian poetry could quote the opening lines of Sir Lewis Morris‘s “On a Thrush Singing in Autumn” (#380).

Of course, some of Q-C’s concerns do seem very familiar to us today: how do we define the “Victorian”? Is it a matter of temporality? A certain sensibility? Geography? (As I mentioned yesterday, a number of American poets are also represented here.) The Victorian-Romantic distinction seems to be firmly in place: “Though Wordsworth happened to be the first Laureate of Queen Victoria’s reign, no one will argue that he belongs to it.” Similarly, you will find poems by Hartley, Sara, and Mary Elizabeth Coleridge, but not Samuel Taylor, and this seems right. Yet Walter Savage Landor, born just three years after S. T. Coleridge, opens the anthology, and you’ll also find a handful of poems by John Clare, who, at our critical moment, has been pretty definitively claimed by Romanticists. All of which makes somewhat glaring the omission of Felicia Hemans (b. 1793, the same year as Clare) and Letitia Elizabeth Landon (b. 1802), female poets who have been “recovered” by scholars eager to expand our conception of romanticisms and by those interested in establishing a proto-Victorian tradition of the poetess. If nothing else, this underscores a kind of resistance to making the anthology a fully historical or historicized document, but I do find it somewhat suspect that there wouldn’t be a single poem of L.E.L.’s, for instance, that could stand up to any given poem in the collection. However, in general–as I mentioned yesterday–female poets are remarkably well-represented here, especially in comparison to where things were in the field by the 1950s and 60s.

As far as the ending of the “Victorian,” Q-C takes an expansive view, writing, “…I have thought it no insult to include any English poet, born in our time, under the great name ‘Victorian’; a title the present misprision of which will no less surely go its way as a flippancy of fashion than it will be succeeded by fresh illustration of the habit, constant in fallen Man, of belittling his contemporaries in particular and the age next before his own in gross.” (Take that Auden, Eliot, et al.) Hence, as I mentioned yesterday, we get James Joyce and Ezra Pound following Michael Field; we also have Yeats preceding Kipling. I suppose this is the one advantage of arranging the poets strictly by birth dates–I know that I at least don’t consider them to be contemporaries, but they were both born in 1865. Such an arrangement also allows Sir Arthur himself (b. 1863) to insert three of his own verses in between the work of Rosamund Marriott Watson (who I’ve heard of) and Stephen Phillips (who I haven’t, despite his apparently being “a highly famed English poet and dramatist, who enjoyed considerable popularity in his lifetime).

There are 779 poems in the volume, which runs to just over 1,000 pages with the index. Many of the poets (I don’t have the patience to count them) have more than one poem here, though the relative numbers are sometimes surprising. As I wrote yesterday, the version I have is a 1955 reprinting, and I assume there was a second edition in there somewhere. I haven’t done the research on that part yet.

But those are the basics. Next week I’ll begin with a poem, probably from the earlier pages of the book. The goal is not to blog every poem or poet, but to explore and discover. However, if you have any requests or curiosities about who and what’s in here, feel free to let me know in the comments. Also, I promise that not everything I write here will actually be 1,000 words long. Really, I do.

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