Provincialism

Denis Donoghue

  • The Penguin Book of Victorian Verse edited by Daniel Karlin
    Allen Lane, 851 pp, £25.00, October 1997, ISBN 0 7139 9049 X

I’ve been comparing Daniel Karlin’s anthology here and there with other anthologies of English verse of the same period (Victoria’s reign 1837-1901) and of the 19th century as a whole. His major precursors are Quiller-Couch, Yeats, Auden, George MacBeth, Christopher Ricks and Ian Fletcher. I don’t intend a Shopper’s Guide, but I’ll start with two small complaints. Unlike Fletcher, Karlin doesn’t give explanatory notes, except for a few dialect words and phrases in foreign languages. Reading Davidson’s ‘Thirty Bob a Week,’ you have to know or guess what a hunks is. Fletcher tells you it’s a ‘miser’:

And it’s often very cold and very wet,
  And my missis stitches towels for a hunks;
And the Pillar’d Halls is half of it to let –
  Three rooms about the size of travelling trunks.
And we cough, my wife and I, to dislocate a sigh,
  When the noisy little kids are in their bunks.

The second complaint: unlike Ricks, Karlin doesn’t tell you when the poems were written or first published, so it’s hard to verify one’s sense of cultural changes from one year or decade to another. Without dates, many of the poems sound as if they were written on the same wet evening in 18—. It’s hard to register changes of style within the same genre, differences of class, the question of authorship professional and amateur, extension of Parliamentary representation, the social formation of readership, effects of classical education, degrees of literacy – the Education Acts of 1870 and 1874 must have made a difference, but to which poets? – tension between the novel and the dramatic monologue, the emergence of Fleet Street as the cultural centre. It’s also hard for me to question my impression, largely derived from Georg Simmel’s The Philosophy of Money (1900), that increasingly, as the century went on, people thought of their private lives as far more authentic than their working lives, even though work had the immense moral force of being dutiful.

Karlin reports that ‘more volumes of poetry appeared in the 19th century than in the two preceding ones combined.’ It would be interesting to know who those poets were, and to what extent they wrote for readers newly literate, ready for the experience of cultivation. In the US today it is reckoned that there are more poets than readers of poetry, and that many of the young poets read no poetry but their own. If that is true, the new poetry is mostly therapeutic, and belongs to the history of psychology rather than of literature. I have no idea whether or not Victorian poetry issued from significantly different motives and conditions. Most of the poems in Karlin’s book are lyrics of love and death. Presumably poetry was thought to be the proper place for such emotions, the Victorian version of Augustan ‘grandeur of generality’, by comparison with the empirical, social and political concerns of fiction.

I can’t be the only reader whose appreciation of Victorian verse was inhibited by Yeats, Eliot, Pound and Leavis. In ‘The Trembling of the Veil’, Yeats made an opportunistic distinction between two traditions in 19th-century English poetry. In the first, most poets aligned themselves with ‘some propaganda or traditional doctrine to give companionship with their fellows’. Arnold had ‘his faith in what he described as the best thought of his generation’, Browning ‘his psychological curiosity’, Tennyson ‘moral values that were not aesthetic values’. But in the second or antinomian tradition, ‘Coleridge of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan, and Rossetti in all his writings, made what Arnold has called that “morbid effort”, that search for “perfection of thought and feeling, and to unite this to perfection of form”, sought this new, pure beauty, and suffered in their lives because of it.’ Yeats had in mind his friends of the Nineties, especially Lionel Johnson, Ernest Dowson and Arthur Symons, poets who had awakened from the vulgarity of ‘the common dream’ – as Yeats calls it in ‘Ego Dominus Tuus’ – at the cost of falling into ‘dissipation and despair’. As a reader of Yeats, I felt obliged to think of his friends as mine, and to find Arnold, Browning and Tennyson rotten with psychology, positivism and science.

Eliot’s authority was even more compelling than Yeats’s. In ‘The Metaphysical Poets’ he had Browning and Tennyson ruminating, thinking and feeling by fits. Later, he came to regard Tennyson as a great poet on the strength of In Memoriam; and to note that his surface, ‘his technical accomplishment, is intimate with his depths.’ In ‘Swinburne as Poet’, Eliot presented Swinburne’s meaning as ‘the hallucination of meaning, because language, uprooted, has adapted itself to an independent life of atmospheric nourishment’. In ‘Baudelaire’ he scorned the rigmarole of Victorian secularism:

In the middle 19th century, the age which (at its best) Goethe had prefigured, an age of bustle, programmes, platforms, scientific progress, humanitarianism and revolutions which improved nothing, an age of progressive degradation, Baudelaire perceived that what really matters is Sin and Redemption ... The recognition of the reality of Sin is a New Life; and the possibility of damnation is so immense a relief in a world of electoral reform, plebiscites, sex reform and dress reform, that damnation itself is an immediate form of salvation – of salvation from the ennui of modern life, because it at last gives some significance to living.

In the Victorian era, genuine spirituality seemed to be French.

For different reasons, Pound demanded that English and American poetry seek the virtues of French prose. Poetry should be at least as well written as the prose of Stendhal and Flaubert or the verse of Gautier, Corbière, Rimbaud and Laforgue. In The ABC of Reading he praised Crabbe, Landor, quoting a passage from Landor’s Alcaeus:

Wormwood and rue be on his tongue
And ashes on his head,
Who chills the feast and checks the song
With emblems of the dead.

He endorsed Browning – ‘this limpidity of narration’ – recognised the validity of Fitzgerald’s Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, and added Whitman to the honourable list for reasons he wasn’t then ready to specify. In ‘A Pact’, making peace with Whitman, Pound was specific enough to say: ‘It was you that broke the new wood.’

F.R. Leavis’s Revaluation and New Bearings in English Poetry made the indictment of Victorian poetry complete:

There are, of course, discriminations to be made: Tennyson, for instance, is a much better poet than any of the Pre-Raphaelites. And Christina Rossetti deserves to be set apart from them and credited with her own thin and limited but very notable distinction; for it was a truly distinguished achievement to bring, as she did, a speaking voice and manner into poetry. There is, too, Emily Brontë, who has hardly yet had full justice as a poet; I will record, without offering it as a checked and deliberated critical judgment, the remembered impression that her ‘Cold in the Earth’ is the finest poem in the 19th-century part of The Oxford Book of English Verse.

But these achievements were not enough to modify Leavis’s conviction of ‘the divorce between thought and feeling, intelligence and sensibility, that is characteristic of the 19th century’. The poetry of the period, he maintained, ‘was characteristically preoccupied with the creation of a dream-world’. Victorian poetry ‘admits implicitly that the actual world is alien, recalcitrant, and unpoetical, and that no protest is worth making except the protest of withdrawal’. Arnold’s note in ‘The Scholar-Gipsy’ was typical:

O born in days when wits were fresh and clear,
  And life ran gaily as the sparkling Thames;
 Before this strange disease of modern life,
   With its sick hurry, its divided aims,
 Its heads o’ertax’d, its palsied hearts, was rife.

In 1932, when Leavis published New Bearings in English Poetry, it was clear that a new direction must be found: hence ‘the peculiar importance of Mr T.S. Eliot’. ‘It is mainly due to him that no serious poet or critic today can fail to realise that English poetry in the future must develop (if at all) along some other line than that running from the Romantics through Tennyson, Swinburne, A Shropshire Lad and Rupert Brooke. He has made a new start, and established new bearings.’

The first surprise in Karlin’s anthology is the unmisgiving ease with which he has transcended such considerations as those I have ascribed to Yeats, Eliot, Pound and Leavis. He has given several long poems entire: the Rubáiyát, Clough’s Amours de Voyage, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese – but not a word of her Aurora Leigh – Christina Rossetti’s Goblin Market, Thomson’s The City of Dreadful Night and Meredith’s Modern Love – which Leavis despised as ‘the flashy product of unusual but vulgar cleverness working upon cheap emotions’. But Karlin hasn’t found the little space needed for Hopkins’s ‘The Wreck of the Deutschland’, or for any stanzas of Wilde’s The Ballad of Reading Gaol, one of the most memorable bad poems of the period. The anthology includes about a hundred and fifty poets, many of them represented by one poem. But it is not critically forceful, except for a suggestion of its presenting the Browning version of Victorian poetry, emphasising dramatic monologues more than the Tennysonian picturesque.

I interpret Karlin’s procedure as a reaction against Leavis’s pursuit of the single enabling ‘line’ of modern poetry. He has opted to give readers a big book of choices in which they can enjoy reading particular poems without worrying about contexts, social issues or the direction that led to Eliot and the need of him. Besides, no single line or narrative has been found to accommodate the diverse poetries of Tennyson, Browning, Lewis Carroll, Christina Rossetti, Arnold, Hopkins, Hardy and Yeats. There are suggestive affiliations, as between Barnes and Hopkins, but no single narrative has explanatory power. A study of the emergence of modern poetry would need at least six lines of affiliation, by my count. More, if we included the American poets. Karlin’s anthology would belie its title, but it would look and sound very different if it recognised, as by a quirk of definition it might, Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Tuckerman. An anthology of Victorian verse, strictly defined, is a provincialism, a point I am reminded of by a stringent paragraph in Ian Fletcher’s Introduction to his British Poetry and Prose 1870-1905 (1987). He must have felt qualms about compiling yet another Oxford anthology of British literature. Or, doing the work in Tucson, Arizona, he may have wanted to dissent from the pious demarcations of literature in which he was officially involved:

The analogue between 1900-05 and the Eighties, which have all too readily developed their own style, is obvious: we still tend to enjoy the Englishness of English Art, a formula projected by Nikolaus Pevsner, a naturalised German, under pressure of an international art history of the modern movement that is no longer fashionable. The return to the vernacular in architecture is the most marked consequence, but the effects can be sensed in literature also. Such proneness in the sub-culture is well enough: delightful though Betjeman was, distinguished though Larkin was, monoglot talking in one’s sleep is an arid exercise. And this remains even more true of those whose celebrations are confined to the regional and local past: back to John Clare or back to Edward Thomas, back to Ivor Gurney: to some inch or other that is for ever England.

Karlin is not a Little Englander. His working principle seems rather to be: I’m sure you’ll find many poems here to enjoy, especially if you don’t demand that each of them take part in some insistent cultural project.

But I wonder about the last paragraph of his Introduction. Speaking of the contradictions in a poem by the pseudonymous ‘Caerleon,’ he comments:

Many of the finest Victorian poems are founded on such inter- and contradictions, on thwarted energies which force themselves through unexpected channels, on impulses of restlessness and misgiving. But the misgivings of Victorian poetry were truly a gift to Modernism, a treasure which funded its experiments and which the ungrateful pirates claimed to have dug up themselves. The contest between ‘speech’ and ‘song’, which is carried on by Eliot and Pound among others, and which animates English poetry up to Larkin and beyond, suggests something of the intelligence of Victorian poetry and of its enduring vitality.

‘Intelligence’ in that sentence seems to be a challenge offered to Leavis. If Karlin means by the other sentences that Eliot and Pound owed far more to Victorian poets than they were prepared to say, I think he’s right. Eliot claimed that in 1910, hoping to find modern poets in English as guides, ‘there was literally no one to whom one would have dreamt of applying.’ The question still seemed to Eliot: ‘Where do we go from Swinburne?’ And the answer appeared to be: nowhere. But a remarkable feature of Eliot’s early poems, as Ricks’s edition of Inventions of the March Hare shows, is the degree to which they remember poems by Beddoes, Tennyson, Dowson, Lionel Johnson, Symons and Davidson, poets he only belatedly acknowledged. Karlin’s anthology is not perhaps the place to reconsider these old but unresolved issues. He seems more interested in providing diverse if rather unquestioning pleasure.