- The Poets of the Nineties
A foremost 1890s icon receives excellent treatment from Joseph Bristow and Rebecca N. Mitchell in Oscar Wilde’s Chatterton (Yale Univ. Press, 2015). Their principal focus is Wilde’s affinities with Thomas Chatterton’s forgeries, plus accusations that, because of the forgeries, he was a criminal. Chatterton’s shadow, as forger, as criminal, over subsequent nineteenth-century writers is convincingly presented as a far larger entity than has generally been assumed. Wilde’s notable interest in T. G. Wainewright, the notorious poisoner, and his forgeries and identity changes, likewise figure significantly, as forerunners of his own life and the identity shifts and deceptions in his plays. An embarrassment of riches appears in critiques of earlier nineteenth-century British writers, mainly poets, but spotlights on Charles Lamb, Horace Walpole, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, George Meredith, or Swinburne should not go unnoticed. The sections on Wainewright’s paintings and Henry Wallis’s Death of Chatterton, with Meredith as model, offer deft commentary on important visual arts–literature links. Wilde’s aspirations to be associated with the Pre-Raphaelites and with Keats also loom large, and his challenges to Arnold’s denigration of the impact of Celtic literature also deserve notice. Bristow and Mitchell’s book serves as an enhancing complement to Wilde’s lectures (e.g., on decorative arts) and letters. It likewise reveals how far Chatterton’s reach was, thereby supplementing work by Nick Groom and others.
In many ways this book serves as a useful cultural history of the Romantic- Victorian connections. Implicitly, as the late Lionel Stevenson used to argue, those terms suggesting separation of “Romantic” from “Victorian” should give way to just “nineteenth-century.” Indeed, Bristow and Mitchell produce evidence for similarities rather than extreme differences by presenting a progression, not a bifurcation, of the arts as the century ran its course. Moreover, despite the understandably gloomy aura that has dogged Chatterton, the Pre-Raphaelites, and Wilde (along with others mentioned in context), this book discusses exuberances that should not be ignored.
Such exuberance infiltrates Chatterton’s creation of the Rowley poems, much in Keats and other Romantics, and Wilde’s stage comedies. True, such exuberance has its day in life’s trajectory, and the less pleasant aspects of its departure, as the transition to adulthood goes on, can not be avoided, not without a wistfulness or, even, sadness. This panoramic book merits a long shelf life. Students of the nineteenth-century literary-cultural milieu will find [End Page 385] indispensable information in these pages, no question. A coda appears in regard to a poet not included in the book, but Andrew Breeze’s “The Lad Came to the Door at Night” (Housman Society Journal 41 : 56–67) indicates that A. E. Housman may have been greatly influenced by the type of medieval ballad called “serenade,” in which a lover pays court at night to his mistress (or vice versa), with varied outcomes. Housman’s inspiration may derive less from Heine than his own comments might suggest (and would be in keeping with his spirit in destroying a potentially too-revelatory portion in The Name and Nature of Poetry). Just so that Housman is not wrenched too far from, for many, his more typical literary territory, Donald Mackenzie demonstrates a pertinent classical influence in “Two Versions of Lucretius: Arnold and Housman” (Housman Society Journal 41 : pp. 23–45). There Arnold’s response is that of a cultural historian, who derives from De Rerum Natura and Magister Vitae, whereas Housman “mines particular images and stances” (p. 45).
What I’ll term “the all-embracing outreach of nineteenth-century British poetry” as applicable to Bristow and Mitchell’s book, and the writers they include, also informs Kostas Boyiopoulos, The Decadent Image: The Poetry of Wilde, Symons and Dowson (Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2015). There, too, links between early and late nineteenth-century poets are established. Interesting connections are made among the three poets named in the book title, for example, those bonding Symons (with Henry Harland and William Hazlitt), Gray, and Wilde (pp. 107ff.), or those linking Dickens and Swinburne with Dowson (pp. 119, 176). Moreover, a Keatsian presence is evident...