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  • The Case of Light Verse, or Vers de Société
  • Lee Behlman (bio)

What is light verse? The term first appeared in a book title in 1902,1 with Anthony C. Deane’s A Little Book of Light Verse, and it gained in popularity later in the twentieth century, appearing in the titles of well-known Oxford University Press collections edited by W. H. Auden (1938) and Kingsley Amis (1978), as well as American collections from William Harmon (1979) and Russell Baker (1987), and even one edited for the Library of America by John Hollander (2003).2 The notion that light verse is essentially comic arrived late, in 1978, with Amis’s introduction to his revisionary collection, in which he emphasizes the subversive and anarchic force of its humor. While Amis allows for other, earlier conceptions of light verse, for him light verse at its best is comically low: It “prefers forms incompatible with decent seriousness. . . . It deals with low matters, with subjects, scenes and concerns that are either poetically or morally unsuitable for high consideration. . . . Its chief weapon is impropriety” (viii). In a 1997 essay on Dorothy Parker, John Hollander follows Amis in equating light verse with comic verse, and he unfolds in greater detail the operations of its most characteristic jokes: it uses “verbal trickery, such as unlikely rhyming . . . and the building up toward a pun that can retract the agenda that had led up to it.” Light verse has, for Hollander, a “dependence on [literary] conventions,” even, as with Amis, as it upends social conventions, and “at best” it plays “only a single trick or so.”3 The comedy arrives headlong through clever but one-dimensional jokes and other surface-level effects.

While such firmly comic conceptions of light verse have been dominant since Amis, the form was conceptualized quite differently in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.4 Humor was never excluded, but the common descriptor for light verse was “vers de société”—that is, verse set in the milieu of refined upper-middle-class and upper-class English society and narrated by a usually male speaker who is a participant in the scene.5 Vers de société, which was commonly described by critics as “light,”6 was restricted to this elevated social setting and an associated set of attitudes, including a polished, polite humor. As Adam Mazel has recently observed, nineteenth-century vers de société was thus kept walled off generically, both by critics and by the authors of the [End Page 477] verse themselves, from the higher form of poetry, with its heavier intellectual content and less restrictive formal patterns.7 And as a “society” genre narrated from within its elevated confines, there were limits to the subversive potential of this verse.

But it would be wrong to suggest that nineteenth-century light verse or vers de société was simply a retrograde form of clever, elite scribbling: its critical construction was considerably more complex. In this essay, I make two related claims: first, as theorized by critics and collectors, vers de société dwelled in a conceptual middle ground defined by balance and detachment—emotional, formal, even philosophical. For a set of diverse figures whose writing on this subject I will explore—including the late-eighteenth-century critic Isaac D’Israeli and the mid-Victorian poet and anthologizer Frederick Locker-Lampson—vers de société occupies, variously and sometimes in combination, the following middle states: an Enlightenment-era aesthetic of poised, “polished” form; an emotional tenor set between raucous humor and tragedy; and a philosophic position of detachment from and acceptance of life’s suffering. In its twentieth-century incarnation, as “light verse,” this poetry shifts to occupy other middle states, including a political position of liberal compromise and a remove from the intense self-consciousness that haunts the modern lyric. As I will demonstrate, in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, light verse is a form that has been deliberately circumscribed by critics and poets between extremes, making it the quintessential genre of modal perfection.8

My second claim about light verse is that for several nineteenth-century critics, including the late-Victorian writer Andrew Lang, the project...