Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

In the Valley of the Shadow of Books

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

In the Valley of the Shadow of Books

Article excerpt

Matthew Arnold suggested part of our challenge when he announced in his general introduction to The English Poets (1880) that "the future of poetry is immense." (1) Arnold intended to bestow on poetry a metaphysical immensity, one defined by taking up the work that dogmatic religion could no longer perform. But by proclaiming poetry's high destiny in this particular bibliographic setting, Arnold bore clouded witness to a counter-history featuring poetry collections that were physically immense. I want to recall that obscured history and suggest how the study of Victorian poetry in the future will benefit from more careful and curious thinking about Victorian books and Victorian readers.

The English Poets, the four-volume anthology for which Arnold provided a general introduction, was a particular kind of book, a historically organized collection aiming at a comprehensive coverage of the national tradition or some widely accepted chapter of it. Like Arnold, we have all grown up with this type of book, and David Latane's recent review essay about our ample anthology options exemplifies a professional fluency in "anthologese." In the meantime, we have been tempted into thinking that books such as The English Poets have always been around. In a recent special issue of this journal, "Palgrave's Golden Treasury and the Victorian Anthology," Jonah Siegel was right to say that it has been "easy to forget the novelty of the genre--at least as it is currently understood." (2) Indeed, we ought to remember that Francis Turner Palgrave's famous collection is not an anthology in the same sense as The English Poets is. Palgrave did not aim for his collection of lyrics to be a "historical Anthology," but one such collection--Alexander Chalmers' The Works of the English Poets (21 vols., 1810-1814)--he did identify as the essential resource for the project. (3) And, as we now know, such immense books only became possible following the 1774 House of Lords judgment on the case of Donaldson v. Beckett, which effectively ended a common law right to perpetual copyright. Before 1774, "any design to publish a large series of complete texts involving a wide range of authors would have been extremely costly, if not simply impossible, given the difficulties arising from the fragmentary pattern of ownership of the copyright scattered among protective booksellers." The 1774 ruling has long been recognized as an important event in the history of British publishing, but it took the work of Thomas Bonnell, Trevor Ross, and others to establish in detail how the ruling stimulated the proliferation of a new literary super-genre that deeply influenced future critical and poetic practice. (4)

The appearance of Hugh Blair's The British Poets (44 vols., 1773-76), John Bell's The Poets of Great Britain (109 vols., 1776-82), The Works of the English Poets (with biographical introductions by Samuel Johnson [58 vols., 1779-81]), and Robert Anderson's The Works of the British Poets (13 vols., 1792-95) made the last quarter of the eighteenth century a time when the poetic canon was materially embodied in an unprecedented way. Many more collections were to follow, and the rapid journey they made from bookseller's innovation to cultural staple constitutes one of the great bibliographic transformations of modern British literary history. Anthologies and literary miscellanies, of course, predated that period. But they were rarely organized upon historical, author-centered principles, and they rarely attempted to put forward a canon. The primary connotations of "anthology" today--as an authoritative gathering--suggests how the ancient meaning of the word--a gathering of flowers--was crushed and obscured by the weighty pretensions of those expansive Poets of the 1770s and later.

From this perspective The English Poets of 1880 marked an important transition in the history of the modern English literary anthology. It was the first to include the contributions of many different editors, a collection of readers gathered on the threshold of institutionalized English studies. …

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