Victorian Poetry 41.3 (2003) 419-424
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The Poets of the Nineties
Benjamin F. Fisher
Attack permeates Germaine Greer's "The Name and Nature of Poetry" (HSJ 28 : 9-23), delivered as the Housman Lecture during the Orange World International Writers Season in London, Apollo Theatre, December 11, 2002. Choosing a title which throws down a gauntlet at Housman's own renowned lecture, later published by Cambridge University Press, Greer challenges many of the professor-poet's precepts about just what poetry is or is not. She faults AEH's admiration for and emulation of Samuel Daniel, cites/quotes Byron at length to hit at AEH's context of emotion, deplores his ballad stanza, characterizes "With rue my heart is laden" as a homosexual poem (perhaps overlooking that emotion in love relationships may be the same in homosexual or heterosexual beings, whatever the physical manifestations), presents a panorama of AEH's—to her—lousy diction, and concludes by noting, to his disadvantage, difference between Housman's poems and those of poets like Eliot, Pound, and Yeats. Greer also apparently dislikes Matthew Arnold's ideas about poetry, neatly condescending to AEH, the late or belated Victorian, for admiring Arnold's ideas, while implying that she herself is anything but (sympathetic with) that sort of person/writer—subsequently hinting that only [End Page 419] those who read shoddy poems can appreciate AEH's. A century-plus of more positive/sympathetic than negative responses may suggest that not all who enjoy Housman's poems are suspect, witness Christopher Ricks, the late Clyde K. Hyder, Seamus Heaney, Norman Page, or, more recently, Carol Efrati (author of one of the best books about AEH and, sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly, about poetry in general).
Challenge likewise courses through Christine Roth's "Ernest Dowson and the Duality of Late-Victorian Girlhood: 'Her Double Perversity'" (ELT 45 : 158-175). Contrary to the notion that all little girls in Dowson's poems and stories "are somehow sequestered within a world of youth, innocence, timelessness, or art," Roth finds sound evidence in those writings to argue for these girls as ambiguous, simultaneously suggesting asexuality and childlike naiveté as well as sexual provocation emanating from worldliness. This bifurcation is plausible because of Victorian double standards concerning sexual activities or lack thereof, a duality which affected Dowson himself and his relationship, or lack thereof, with "Missy." In yet another readjustment of the record, Gary H. Paterson ("Lionel Johnson and Arthur Hugh Clough: An Ironic Debt," VP 40 : 255-260) convincingly demonstrates what Lionel Johnson's "A Burden of Easter Vigil" owes to Clough's "Easter Day. Naples 1849" and how the poems differ. Johnson's is far more upbeat, moving in a general direction from earthliness toward heavenly spirituality, a contrast to Clough's doubts and desperation, supplementing critiques that suggest sources in Arnold and the Pre-Raphaelites. The "Ironic" modifier in Paterson's title is employed because of Johnson's strictures against Clough's poetry as too thought-filled, sermonic, perhaps, at the expense of artistry. In the same VP we turn to another uneasy poet, Charlotte Mew. Jessica Walsh provides astute readings of Mew's poems that treat doubts about the protagonists' sanity and physicality as mirrors of Mew's own uneasiness about her mind and body ("'The strangest pain to bear': Corporeality and Insanity in Charlotte Mew's Poetry," pp. 217-240).
Noting the prominence of gender issues in current literary studies, James Diedrick's " 'My love is a force that will force you to care': Subversive Sexuality in Mathilde Blind's Dramatic Monologues" (VP 40 : 359-386), analyzes works by a poet who had become well known before the 1890s, but whose affinities with New Woman topics loom as especially weighty features in Dramas in Miniature (1891). Diedrick's extended analysis of "A Carnival Episode" centers on the patriarchal male soldier in that poem, whose ambivalent attitude toward his General's wife causes his sexual frustration and consequent rage toward her, as well as her shifting responses. The very title is redolent of the spirit of the 1890s...