Our book today is 1990’s The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse edited by Christopher Hicks, in keeping both with April being National Poetry Month and also with my own ongoing fascination with all things Victorian, which has been true since that little slip of a thing came to the throne and made all the left-hand front-page columns in the Boston papers. Of course, it’s a frustrating thing to be fascinated with the Victorian era – more than any other relatively recent time (the ancient Romans surely win for all time), that era has been mischaracterized by subsequent eras, used by them to make points about the present, almost always at the expense of the past. ‘Victorian’ began appearing in dictionaries as a synonym for ‘prissy,’ ‘moralizing,’ and most of all ‘repressed’ almost before the old queen’s corpse was cold, but that was always much more a function of what the Edwardians wanted to believe about themselves than it was ever about the Victorians themselves. Indeed, Victorians who were rude enough to live on into the ‘modern’ age were always surprised by how new generations described those vanished decades.
To the Victorians, they lived in a young age, one exploding with new and undreamt-of possibilities in science, culture, government – and art. They were far more likely to challenge the past than to venerate it mindlessly. And if they were often maudlin and sentimental, well, before modern societies – especially modern America – criticize them too stridently for that, they might want to look at the books currently topping their own bestseller charts. Any good anthology of Victorian verse will present the reader with an age he never met in school. And Ricks’ anthology is quite possibly the best one ever compiled (despite rather too much Arthur Hugh Clough for anybody’s well-being).
The fun starts, as it should be so seldom does, with the Introduction (uncredited, but presumably Hicks’ own), which bemoans the necessity of all such Introductions and the temptations they provide for the unwary sod called upon to write them:
Then there is the anthologist’s temptation to write a review, or at least to see that the reviewers have their work cut out for them; perhaps by covert self-congratulation on the choices and the finds (Remark how unknown are A and B! How hitherto misprized were X and Y!); perhaps, with sheer statistics, by implicit deprecation of the beknighted predecessor.
The anthologist ought at least not to preclude the chance of being truly surprised, and not just by an unexpected instance of something anticipated; and the trouble with narrowingly circular definitions is that they ensure that the unexpected becomes not only the unlooked-for (and therefore missed) but the uncalled-for (and therefore resisted and resented).
That sense of surprise carries the reader the whole way through this plump volume, even though its A-list roster is as familiar as it is impressive. There’s Wordsworth here, and Tennyson, John Clare and both Brownings, Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear, a clutch of Brontes, all of “Goblin Market,” Matthew Arnold, Thomas Hardy, and refreshing amounts of George Meredith and Robert Louis Stevenson. But there are also plenty of lesser lights, shining all the brighter in this more luminous setting, including Digby Mackworth Dolben (1848-1867), whose little “Song”is about as Victorian as Victorian gets:
The world is young today:
Forget the gods are old,
Forget the years of gold
When all the months were May.
A little flower of Love
Is ours, without a root,
Without the end of fruit,
Yet – take the scent thereof.
There may be hope above,
There may be rest beneath;
We see them not, but Death
Is palpable – and Love.
Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909) is here in all his melodic glory, including this favorite bit from “The Garden of Proserpine”:
From too much love of living,
From hope and fear set free,
We thank with brief thanksgiving
Whatever gods may be
That no life lives forever;
That dead men rise up never;
That even the weariest river
Winds somewhere safe to sea.
And there’s the aforementioned Arthur Hugh Clough (1819 – 1861), whose excerpt from Dipsychus isn’t as well-known today as it should be:
As I sat in the cafe, I said to myself,
They may talk as they please about what they call pelf,
They may sneer as they like about eating and drinking,
But I cannot help it, I cannot help thinking
How pleasant it is to have money, heigh-ho!
How pleasant it is to have money.
And of course there’s sonorous Alfred Tennyson (1809 – 1892), without whom any Victorian anthology would be unthinkable. That witty Introduction does right by Tennyson too, correctly telling us that “Tennyson could do things that were entirely beyond the capabilities of Tennyson’s apes.” Certainly I could go on reading him all day, as in this excerpt from Tithonus:
The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
The vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
Man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
And after many a summer dies the swan.
Me only cruel immortality
Consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms,
Here at the quiet limit of the world,
A white-hair’d shadow roaming like a dream
The ever-silent spaces of the East,
Far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.
Of course, no anthology can be perfect, because we all make our own mental anthologies from all we read. My own favorite Christina Rossetti poem, for instance, isn’t in Ricks’ volume. But how could I do even so small a Victorian round-up as this without including it? After all, who knows when I’ll get another chance?
Does the road wind up-hill all the way?
Yes, to the very end.
Will the day’s journey take the whole long day?
From morn to night, my friend.
But is there for the night a resting-place?
A roof for when the slow dark hours begin.
May not the darkness hide it from my face?
You cannot miss that inn.
Shall I meet other wayfarers at night?
Those who have gone before.
Then must I knock, or call when just in sight?
They will not keep you standing at that door.
Shall I find comfort, travel-sore and weak?
Of labour you shall find the sum.
Will there be beds for me and all who seek?
Yea, beds for all who come.