The Victorian age was “saturated in verse:” in songs and recitations at home, at work, in the pub, or on the stage; in hymns, at school, in love letters and election squibs; and of course in books, magazines, and newspapers.1 This article examines the poetry found in the most popular type of Victorian newspaper, the local paper, and argues that this was the type of publication in which most Victorian poetry was published and—from the 1860s—in which most Victorian poetry was read. We estimate that in the order of four million poems were published in this way during Victoria’s reign in England alone. At least half of these poems were reprinted from elsewhere, but between a third and a half of them were original and locally produced. The publication of such a huge quantity of verse raises many questions. Why did local papers publish so much poetry? Who wrote it? What did readers make of it? How did the local press relate to other parts of the poetry-publishing ecology and to literary cultures in the metropolis and the provinces? What is “local” poetry, and what functions did it serve? The answers challenge how we view Victorian poetry as a whole. This article introduces the local newspaper as a significant and major publisher of poetry and traces the links between the local press and metropolitan periodical and book publishing. Five local papers are selected as case studies, from which trends are extrapolated to present a national picture of the scale and nature of poetry publishing in the local press, providing context for a brief examination of local poetry.
Local newspapers, particularly weekly titles, are studied here because more of them were printed than any other type of publication containing poetry throughout the nineteenth century. This means that, in aggregate, more poetry was published in this way than in books, magazines, or London newspapers. However, local papers had limited readerships until the 1860s (in the 1840s and 1850s most Victorians probably encountered poetry through cheap popular penny miscellanies such as the London Journal). A change began in the mid 1850s, when [End Page 65] new local papers were launched, aggregate circulations overtook those of London newspapers and magazines, and from the early 1860s until the end of the century the local paper became the most widely read type of publication carrying poetry.2 Provincial papers typically published one poem per issue at mid-century, rising to two per issue from 1860 onwards. This was more than London dailies such as the Times, the Morning Post and the Morning Chronicle which often carried poetry, although not every day, while others such as the Standard and the Daily News published it less often.3 A weekly such as the Examiner, where “The Charge of the Light Brigade” was first published, carried at least one poem per issue, while popular Sunday papers such as Reynolds’s Weekly Newspaper and Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper carried two or three per issue.4
The local press was diverse and dynamic. Thousands of titles came and went, some daily, some bi- or tri-weekly, some weekly. Some were sober morning papers, modeled on the Times, others were evening papers focusing heavily on sport, serial fiction, and telegraphed news; there were city papers, small-town papers, and rural county papers, each with their own personality, geographical coverage, and political stance. Taken together, they were more “national” than London titles such as The Times.5 This article spells out the implications for the field of Victorian poetry, as an example of the exciting new insights we can gain about Victorian culture when we start from what was read, rather than what has survived. Such an approach is now much easier, thanks to the digitization of at least 100 nineteenth-century local newspapers in databases such as Nineteenth Century British Library Newspapers and the British Newspaper Archive.
A study of poetry in the lowly texts of the local press emphasizes the ubiquity of what Charles LaPorte calls “Victorian ‘poetic behavior’”; it also reveals the importance of seeing print culture as an ecology, through the eyes of omnivorous Victorian readers, who...