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The Yale Journal of Criticism 14.2 (2001) 353-383

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Reading the Victorian Souvenir: Sonnets and Photographs of the Crimean War

Natalie M. Houston


The prevalence and popularity of the sonnet--rule bound and freighted with historical and national associations--throughout the Victorian period, when many poets were exploring unrhymed and less structured forms, invites exploration as to why and how Victorian poets and readers would turn to an old form to represent and understand their self-consciously modern experience. Although the amatory sonnet sequences by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, George Meredith, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti are today perhaps the best known examples of Victorian sonnet writing, those famous works are in fact exceptions to the great number of sonnets published during the period, many of which were not published in sequences and which tended to focus on descriptions of landscape and especially scenes of travel; portraits of famous people, friends, and family; moral or political reflections on specific events or issues; and moments from everyday life. 1 Victorian poets and readers understood that these contemporary uses for the sonnet form were substantially different from the Renaissance amatory sequences addressed to an idealized beloved:

A word may be said as to the uses and advantages of the sonnet. It is capital for embalming the moods of a moment--those sentiments and feelings which contain a sort of completeness in themselves. It forms an admirable setting for a beautiful prospect, a noble act, a splendid character, whereby they may be contemplated again in miniature, as it were, when their outward form is no longer with us. 2

William Davies's 1873 essay concisely expresses the two main functions for the sonnet form that underlie all of its popular Victorian subgenres: description and memorialization. The sonnet's condensed unity of expression combined with Victorian assumptions of its autobiographical truth to make it ideal for recording specific moments of time and their accompanying thoughts and emotions. 3 The care and precision required to craft a sonnet added value to each word, and meant that the sonnet offered only significant details to its readers. 4 In descriptive poetry, such focus on detail combined with the temporal memorializing function to make the sonnet form seem appropriate, for Victorian readers like Davies, as a way to capture a scene or moment for later use. 5 Davies describes the sonnet as an embalmed [End Page 353] piece of history, a miniature artifact to be contemplated as the record of the "completeness" of a discrete moment. Such discrete moments of the poet's experience can thus be transmitted to the reader through the sonnet form. The "uses and advantages" of the sonnet, here expressed in functional, rather than literary terms, begin to open up the social meaning of the form, or more specifically, its relation to the historical moment of its writers and readers. To approach that social meaning and thereby defamiliarize the sonnet from its traditional literary history of influence (Shakespeare--Milton--Wordsworth), I propose reading the Victorian sonnet and Victorian photography as analogous technologies of representation. 6 Photography and the sonnet were used to represent the same events and objects and were discussed in similar ways by Victorian critics. Because of photography's abiding relation to our own period, its ability to preserve a moment is perhaps more obvious than that of the sonnet. Reading the rhetoric of the two forms together can help us see the modernity of the Victorian sonnet--namely how it could, like the photograph, circulate as a commodified moment of perception.

For this discussion, my texts are taken from the numerous discourses surrounding the Crimean War, which can be understood as the first truly modern British war, despite the chivalric models of warfare embodied in its dandy officers. Orders were communicated by telegraph, St. Petersburg was protected by the first naval minefield, and plans for the use of poison gas were considered. Most importantly, the Crimean war was the first war to be covered by the press, including William Howard Russell's reports in The Times...


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