- The Cambridge Introduction to Victorian Poetry by Linda K. Hughes
The Field of Victorian poetry studies has changed significantly in the past two decades as scholars have expanded its boundaries to include the vast territories of print culture, popular culture, and the literary (mass) market. As the useful “Further Reading” section of The Cambridge Introduction to Victorian Poetry by Linda K. Hughes illustrates, these new perspectives have inspired a wide array of publications on individual poets, as well as on broader themes and issues in poetry and society. Anyone involved in the teaching of Victorian poetry will probably be familiar with the difficulty of finding one’s way around such a large and varied collection of criticism. To these teachers and lecturers, and also to their students, Hughes’s book will prove a valuable compagnon de route.
Organized around topics rather than authors, the book is divided into two parts, “The Forms of Victorian Poetry” and “The Rhetoric of Victorian Poetry,” followed by a coda offering three examples of close reading, a bibliography suggesting further reading, and a glossary of literary terms. In part 1, Hughes looks at Victorian poets’ use of experimental and traditional poetic forms in the widest sense of the word. Starting with comprehensive discussions of the dramatic monologue, of experiments with language, rhyme, rhythm, and metre, and of modern European forms such as the ballad and the sonnet as well as the classical forms of ode, idyll, elegy, and epic, she subsequently considers Victorian poetry in two of its most characteristic forms: its appearance in newspapers and periodicals, and its involvement in a lively exchange with the [End Page 163] novel. Part 2 further demonstrates the interaction between Victorian poetry and other forms of print culture by considering it in the context of a number of key issues of the nineteenth century. Focusing on science and technology, religion, affect, empire, liberty, and art, Hughes cogently shows the complex ways in which poetry participated in and reflected on contemporary public debate.
The Cambridge Introduction to Victorian Poetry is comprehensive without sacrificing clarity, depth, or readability. An experienced and knowledgeable guide, Hughes introduces Victorian poetry in all its forms and facets, from its smallest formal constituents to its broadest public engagements, from the “dactylic pulse” (28) that marks the seductive chanting of the goblins in Christina Rossetti’s “Goblin Market,” for example, to the political context of Elizabeth Barrett’s “The Cry of the Children,” published in Blackwood’s Magazine in August 1843, “when the 1844 Factory Act was being debated in parliament and the press” (123). Moreover, Hughes’s approach to Victorian poetry through the context of contemporary print culture never causes her to lose sight of its indebtedness to Romanticism (as her excellent section on sonnets and her discussion of Aurora Leigh show) nor of its influences on and reception by Modernist audiences. The book opens with Arthur Quiller-Couch in the early 1910s worrying about “Where … to begin?—Where to end?” (1); a century after Quiller-Couch, as scholars increasingly push the confines of Victorian poetry, “Where to begin?” has become not so much a question of determining a moment in history as one of finding a material starting point. The Cambridge Introduction to Victorian Poetry provides such a starting point by skillfully reaching beyond modern editions and anthologies to the original material texts. Hughes invaluably helps her readers face the new challenges of teaching and studying Victorian poetry in the twenty-first century.