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  • Gems by the Thousands:Hoarding Poetry in the Late Nineteenth Century
  • Casie Legette (bio)

In 1867, Charles Mackay published an enormous collection: A Thousand and One Gems of English Poetry. The first edition of Laura Valentine's similarly conceived Gems of National Poetry, advertised as including 1,000 selections, appeared in 1880. In 1884, an independent American version was published: Edwin O. Chapman's A Thousand and One Gems of English and American Poetry.1 Mackay and Valentine's collections would go through many editions. In 1896, Mackay's A Thousand and One Gems was already in its twenty-third edition, and Valentine's and Chapman's anthologies were still being published in the twentieth century. These are huge collections, advertising their scale in their titles, crammed full of poems and extracts, double-columned in the case of the British anthologies, and generally caring little for white space. Mackay's introduction emphasizes the scope of his collection: "The design of the Editor or Compiler of the following volume was to present one great panoramic view of the masterpieces of English poetry" (p. iii). This article investigates the influential work of these editors, who selected, combined, and even created their own poetic gems. Although these anthologies do include many complete poems, they all feature extracts heavily. In those cases, the editor (presumably) has been at work on the original poem, recutting it, relocating it in a new setting, and, perhaps, increasing its value. I analyze the processes of these jeweler-editors, examining how they went about cutting and accumulating their poetic gems. I argue that their transformative work, particularly their tendency to divide long poems into singular, discrete gems, shaped late-nineteenthcentury ideas about poetic form.

These collections all sought to accumulate on a massive scale, as their titles make clear. And the smaller the poem-gems, the more each collection could include. As Chapman notes in his preface to A Thousand and One Gems of English and American Poetry, "[w]ith this limitation as to space, it has been [End Page 73] impossible to include long poems" (p. iii). But long poems do fill these collections, having been significantly truncated, and, often, converted from one long poem into several small ones. A single poem could thus be transformed into a handful of gems. These editors performed this work on poems across the English canon: Chapman's collection is subtitled, "from Chaucer to Tennyson." This article focuses, however, on the excerpting of poems from what we now call the "Romantic" period. The Romantic poets wrote many long poems—long poems excerpted in these anthologies—but over the course of the nineteenth century, poets like Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Keats became associated with short poems, with anthology gems like "Ode on a Grecian Urn" and "I wandered lonely as a Cloud." As I have argued elsewhere, and will argue here, that association of the Romantics with short poems depends, in part, on practices of excerpting, and the way Victorian anthologies privileged, and sometimes created, the short poems that worked best in that format.2 This is a nineteenth-century story, in which early-century poems were remade by later anthologists. In turning Romantic poems into gems, I argue, these anthologies shaped late-century poetic ideals. Though these compendious, decidedly middlebrow, collections seem to have little to do with the precious, expensively produced poetry volumes of the fin de siècle, both share the concept of the poem as gem.

I am interested in the way these large anthologies combine the gem metaphor with practices of poetic excerpting and in the effects of that combination. But there was nothing new about the practice of anthologizing extracts. Eighteenth-century collections—variations on the miscellany and anthology forms—were full of extracts, as their titles often advertised. Vicesimus Knox followed up his 1783 Elegant Extracts; or Useful and Entertaining Passages in Prose selected for the Improvement of scholars in Classical and Other schools with Elegant Extracts; or Useful and Entertaining Pieces of Poetry; both would go through so many editions that, as Leah Price notes, an 1816 edition of the prose extracts proudly proclaimed the "uniformity of English books, in schools" created by the ubiquity of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1530-7190
Print ISSN
0042-5206
Pages
pp. 73-92
Launched on MUSE
2020-07-09
Open Access
No
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