- Narrative Matters: Keynote Address, “Forms and Fashions: A Conference in Celebration of the Fiftieth Anniversary of Victorian Poetry”
“In their use of the whole antecedent range of poetic forms and themes, the Victorians were far more eclectic than any other poetic group has ever been. . . . Experimenting . . ., they widened the scope of English poetry, both in subject-matter and in technique, to an unparalleled extent.”
My title might suggest attention to narrative poetry generally, or poetry’s relation to the novel, vital issues indeed.1 Though a synthesis of narrative poetry’s larger role in the Victorian era has yet to be written, I take up a different topic and a different purpose, for my title is both a descriptor and, in little, an argument. I want to explore what kind of narrative VP told at the outset about Victorian poetry, how that narrative has persisted or changed over its fifty-year history, and how scholars might complicate that narrative as VP looks forward to its sixtieth anniversary. The narrative relayed by the journal and individual scholars matters not only because this work collectively represents Victorian culture’s poetic production but also because such narratives form a hermeneutic that shapes scholars’ fundamental assumptions, the questions they pose, and their specific interpretive outcomes.
A cursory glance at volume one of VP, issued half a century ago, would suggest this encapsulation of the genre it studied: Victorian poets were men; there were three major poets, namely Arnold, Tennyson, and Browning; most scholars who wrote about Victorian poetry were also male; and Victorian poetry merited study and admiration for its aesthetic qualities resulting from poets’ artistry. Thus only two contributors to Victorian Poetry in 1963, Patricia Ball [End Page 443] and Lore Metzger,2 were women, and all contributions focused on male poets, though Elizabeth Barrett Browning was twice mentioned in passing. Of thirty-seven articles in volume one, twelve were devoted to Browning and eight each to Tennyson and Arnold. Richard Tobias, the “Legendary Pitt English Professor,” as John Stasny called him,3 contributed the first of a fifty-year-long sequence of “This Year’s Work,” illuminating the immediate back story of volume one by surveying scholarship published in 1962. As Professor Tobias reported, “I find [that] Arnold, Browning, and Tennyson continue to dominate the yearly bibliographies. Arnold has a slight lead over Tennyson and Browning, but the Arnold listing is stretched by a number of short notes on individual poems. Yeats, Hopkins, and Hardy (in about that order) follow” (p. 225).4 Arnold’s dominance in 1963 is likewise evident in the preface to the new journal by founding editors Gordon Pitts and John Stasny, who allude to “The Scholar-Gipsy” in their second sentence: “We wish merely to serve our fellow Victorianists in a mutual endeavour of scholarly and critical inquiry into the poetry of the Victorians, who, as their Age recedes farther and farther into the past, appear more and more worthy of the attention of us who still suffer from ‘this strange disease of modern life.’”5 As they also remarked, “The main concern of the journal will be the aesthetic consideration of the poetry of that period” (p. v) in contradistinction to the “study of the poetry in its social, historical, or philosophical context,” though they were open to “an occasional worthy study” of this sort (p. v).
This initial encapsulation of VP’s first volume, however, scants the forward-looking dynamism, breadth of outlook, and complex purposes that also marked the journal from the beginning. If the major poets, including Hopkins,6 took up most space in the journal’s first issues, volume one also represented the diversity of Victorian poetry and the scholarship it inspired with two articles each on George Meredith and Arthur Hugh Clough, individual essays on Arthur Symons’ decadent poetry, Rossetti’s “Rose Mary,” Carlyle’s poetry, and comparative studies of Arnold and George Sand and of Tennyson’s In Memoriam and Goethe’s Faust.7 Richard Tobias’ critical survey additionally noted work on William Barnes, John Davidson, and Eugene Lee-Hamilton, as well as approaches to poetry based on religion and politics.8 Volume one, furthermore, announced...