How did Victorian poets and their poetry engage in contemporary debates about pressing social, religious, and political questions? The 2012 conference theme, “Networks,” encouraged poetry specialists to consider the periodical and publishing contexts that featured verse commentary on contemporary issues; the social networks that led poets to develop—or reject—positions taken by fellow writers; and the literary transformations that occurred as verse moved among poets, between continents, and from one publishing venue to another.
This emphasis on poetry as embedded in history and, even more, as attempting to alter the course of history signals a notable shift in scholarly attitudes over the past fifty years. When the original editors of the Wellesley Index to Victorian Periodicals set their criteria for inclusion, they omitted poetry—a decision they believed “readily defensible.” Partly, the defense was practical, citing the sheer quantity of periodical verse they would need to index (over 7,000 items). Mostly, it was evaluative: “To have included verse would have added an enormous number of worthless items to Part A [the title index] and a large number of obscure authors to be identified and then described in Part B [the author index]” (Houghton, Introduction xvi).1 This editorial decision, as Linda K. Hughes has noted, presumed a predominance of sentimental verse in newspapers and magazines and an “association of poetry with ‘filler’” (92). It failed to account for major poems first published in periodicals and for the significance of occasional verse in which poets engaged the questions of their day. Even more, it presumed that prose, however well or poorly written, was the medium for contending with serious social and political issues, whereas poetry was for expressing feelings or offering secondary commentary.
All three papers in this cluster take a different view of poetry and political engagement. Alison Chapman’s “Poetry, Network, Nation” [End Page 309] demonstrates how British and American expatriate poets in Italy used periodical verse to endorse Italian Unification (Risorgimento). Concentrating on three women—Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Isa Blagden, and Theodosia Garrow Trollope—who “placed themselves at the center of nation making,” Chapman argues that they “predicated their writing identities on a political poetics that . . . circulated by a complex European and transatlantic print and manuscript culture” (275). What the Wellesley editors might have deemed “filler” verse in The Tuscan Athenaeum—Garrow’s “Aurora Rugiadosa: Lines on Gibson’s recently finished statue of Aurora” (1848)—Chapman reads not just as praise of Gibson’s “forward-moving statue” but, more importantly, as a contribution to Italian political revolution. In ekphrastically (re)creating a “feminized angel of the Second Coming” (282), Garrow used poetry to trumpet the cause and link herself with other liberal, pro-Risorgimento artists. Gibson’s sculpture and Garrow’s “Aurora Rugiadosa” became, in turn, sources for Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, an iconic woman poet expressing her own literary and political agency. While we may today remember only Aurora Leigh (1856), the verse novel that crowns Barrett Browning’s career, Chapman recovers the culture of print, sociability, and politics of which it is a part and thereby enriches our understanding of the literary networks through which women poets worked for political change.
Kirstie Blair’s “Transatlantic Tractarians” takes up a different issue in a transnational exchange: the state of High Church Anglicanism in Britain and North America. Oxford Movement writers felt themselves beleaguered at home, disillusioned with the state of the English Church, yet hopeful about possibilities across the Atlantic. In the British Critic of 1839, Newman lamented: “the rest of the Church, either caring nothing for us, or accounting it a point of charity to wish us dead, and the State intruding its well-meant but unamiable blandishments, it is pleasant to look across the western wave, and discern a friendly star breathing peace and shedding benison” (312). Poet-priests of the American Episcopal Church responded to such transatlantic appeals by expressing “honour [to] their nursing mother” but also by asserting the vitality of their native church “in all the vigour of youth, adapting itself to a fresh state of society” (Coxe, Christian Ballads viii). Thus, while American poets learned from their British counterparts, they also produced new...