Victorian Poetry 41.3 (2003) 353-359
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Guide to the Year's Work
David G. Riede
Certainly one of the largest, and probably the most important, recent works on Victorian poetry is A Companion to Victorian Poetry, edited by Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman, and Antony H. Harrison, a compilation of thirty-one substantial essays by established scholars on a wide variety of forms and issues. The Companion is an embarrassment of riches for a reviewer since many of the essays call out for extended individual attention, but I will focus my attention here on the structure and achievement of the volume as a whole. Considering both the difficulties of articulating a fixed canon of Victorian poets and the limitations of looking at poets in isolation, the editors have chosen wisely to eschew the usual practice of commissioning essays on individual poets, and have instead commissioned essays on wide ranging but more or less discrete topics: genres (from epic to nonsense), traditions (classical and medieval), "schools" (Tractarian, Spasmodic, and Pre-Raphaelite), the market for poetry, and intersections of poetry with other elements of Victorian culture (imperialism, nationalisms, religion, science, gender, and sexuality). Obviously parceling out essays to a variety of scholars might lead to artificial boundaries among diverse but connected topics, but the editors have trusted the various authors to negotiate the debatable borders of their topics, with the result that the essays fruitfully overlap, providing coherence and continuity without redundancy. Conspicuously missing from the list of topics are "poetry by women," "Queer Poetry," and "Poetry and Ideology," but, again, the editors have wisely chosen to leave treatment of such concerns to emerge from the manner of treatment of other topics. As the editors point out, the absence of a chapter on women poets suggests "that the work of women poets no longer needs special defence" (p. ix). As a result of the editorial procedures and the consistently high level of authorial contributions, the Companion provides myriad critical perspectives and contextualizations of a very wide range of poets and poems, and constitutes an invaluable resource for students of the period.
Without making invidious distinctions or odious comparisons, and without providing the analysis and commentary the various chapters deserve, it seems fair to point out some of the highlights of the volume. Herbert [End Page 353] Tucker's discussion of the epic calls attention not only to the usual suspects, but also to a surprising number of fascinating, though justly neglected, contenders, and Matthew Rowlinson, in his chapter on the lyric, offers a compelling argument about how "the genre of lyric poetry is in Victorian Britain for the first time fully implicated in the production of print text as a commodity" (p. 60). The volume also contains authoritative yet suggestive essays on Tractarian poetry by Stephen Prickett, on Spasmodic poetry by Cronin, on the poetic marketplace by Lee Erickson, on poetry and religion by W. David Shaw, and on poetry and science by Alan Rauch. Surprisingly, the Companion rewards careful reading from cover to cover, though it will surely be more valued as a reference text for bringing readers up to date on current thinking about particular topics.
A somewhat more specialized topic, not undertaken by the Companion, is explored in Orientalist Poetics: The Islamic Middle East in Nineteenth-Century English and French Poetry by Emily Haddad, who offers an ambitiously "revisionist view of the literary history of the nineteenth century" as she attempts to show "orientalism's centrality to the evolution of poetry and poetics in France and Britain" (p. 2). More specifically, Haddad argues that nineteenth-century aestheticism constitutes the Islamic Orient in particular as a fundamentally "amimetic site" (p. 3), an "other" to European conceptions of nature as the object of mimetic representation. Examining both French and English poetry of the Romantic and Victorian periods, Haddad traces an engagement with the Islamic orient from the romanticism of Southey, Shelley, Byron, Hemans, and even Wordsworth in England and Hugo and Musset in France through an increasing emphasis on it as a source and object of aesthetic experimentation with amimetic poetics in...