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Victorian Poetry 40.1 (2002) 1-6

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Meg Tasker


THE TERM "VICTORIAN POETRY" IS ONE THAT AUSTRALIAN CRITICS GENERALLY avoid using, because the state of Victoria, in which the second major Australian city is found, gives the adjective "Victorian" a geographical sense that too frequently obscures its use for historical purposes. Even within the field of nineteenth-century literary and historical studies, however, other reasons exist for being cautious with the term in a colonial Australian context.

Complex geographical and cultural factors affected the writing, publishing, reading, and uses of literary texts in English in the Australian colonies. In terms of chronology it is a moot point whether changing phases of literary fashion and influence in Australia followed the same patterns as in Britain. While most nineteenth-century Australians with literary tastes were able to subscribe to many of the same journals and buy a selection of the same books as their English friends and relations, not to mention their North American, Canadian, New Zealand, and other English-speaking cousins, the Victorian period in Australian poetry needs to be distinguished from its British equivalents. Any study of the local literary culture has to acknowledge not only the limited market and infrastructure for publishing within Australia, but also the shared consciousness of being in the colonies, not in England. While a sense of being somehow "behind" the cultural center frequently figures in this mindset, we cannot attribute all the differences to the length of time it took printed materials to be transported around the globe. Different soil and climate (to use the kind of organic metaphor beloved of the Victorians) produce different kinds of growth, even from the same seed. Critical studies have focused on the delayed, muted, or altered effects in Australia of major intellectual and artistic developments such as Romanticism.

In temporal and political terms, however, the Victorian period in Australia coincides with its colonial phase (post-transportation, pre-Federation). Through a trick of historical timing, the end of Australia's colonial status coincided with the end of Victoria's reign; having signed the legislation to enact the constitution for the newly federated member of the British Commonwealth, Queen Victoria cast a pall over Australia's Federation celebrations by dying on January 22, 1901. The centenaries of both her death and the federation of most of the Australasian colonies [End Page 1] into a new nation have thus been linked in 2001 for Australian Victorianists. 1 Nostalgia for aspects of British-Victorian life, and pride in the achievement of political independence from its political and social heritage were (and continue to be) delicately balanced in certain areas of Australian culture. This is so despite, or perhaps because of, the fact that there have been many ethnic and cultural groups and experiences in the population and history of this country, from the indigenous population's hard experience of being colonized, through the mass migrations from Asia, Europe, and America during the goldrushes of the 1850s, to more recent waves of immigration.

Politics and poetry, however, do not follow the same calendar, and the existence or nature of a "Victorian period" in Australian poetry is problematic, even if we restrict our focus to the mid-to-late century, after the transportation of convicts had ceased. The nineteenth century was not simply a transitional or incubatory period during which colonial writers produced a belated, secondary body of work in imitation of the superior metropolitan culture of the homeland, a culture that many hoped to replicate or perhaps even improve in the outposts of Empire. It was also a period of conscious exploration and construction of cultural identities, and of adapting or inventing poetic techniques to deal with new, very different conditions and materials. The reworking may often have been derivative, or to put it in less pejorative terms, intertextually connected to the tradition of poetry in English. In addition, however, a post-colonial reading of Australian poetry, like a feminist or class-oriented reading, might set out to re-interpret the complicated ways in which poets and their texts related to the central traditions of high art, and some...


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