Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Imagining the Cockney University: Humorous Poetry, the March of Intellect, and the Periodical Press, 1820- 1860

Academic journal article Victorian Poetry

Imagining the Cockney University: Humorous Poetry, the March of Intellect, and the Periodical Press, 1820- 1860

Article excerpt

This essay attempts to read the aesthetically and culturally unambitious verse to be found in the newly proliferating cheap illustrated humorous journals from the 1830s to the 1850s as a significant form of social history. This is not to say that diversionary or comic verse is necessary simple in its formulations, but rather to raise the larger question of how far commercially successful and relatively down-market poems and lyrics, many of them deriving from performances taking place elsewhere within popular culture, might offer access to an important strand of historical understanding. In order to give shape to this investigation the focus is on poems published in magazines in this period that discuss a single major historical topic, the "march of intellect," that set of socio-economic, cultural, and scientific changes that underpinned the transformations in the class structure and economic base of British society in the first half of the nineteenth century. (1) Central to these transformations was the democratization of print culture and the acknowledgement that mass literacy and access to the printed word was an inevitable consequence of, and a major force in structuring, the march of intellect. (2)

A discussion of the ways in which a major socio-political phenomenon was evaluated and analyzed in the humorous verse published in periodical literature between 1820 and 1860 appears at first sight a relatively straightforward undertaking. The complexities and resonances of the terms used here--especially "humorous verse" and "periodical literature"--in relation to the print culture of the late Regency and early Victorian period, however, render the task anything but simple. The verses gathered here for discussion derive from a wide variety of print cultural sources--serialized song books, part issue collections of lyrics derived from the theater as well as publications more readily identifiable as periodicals--and thus expose the generic and formal instability that characterized the marketplace for comic literature in this period. They were consequently written in a variety of forms that were as likely to derive from the needs of the theatre or the concert room as the demands of a magazine editor. They were as likely to adopt the formal characteristics of a broadside ballad or a theatrical monologue as any more conventionally literary kind of poetry. Accordingly, it is important to begin by asking a number of fundamental questions that recognize the origins of these verses in print culture.

An immediate difficulty is that of ascribing such lyrics to their appropriate cultural level, a question that cannot be addressed simply by recourse to an analysis of literary quality. Are we discussing poetry or verse, or lyrics, or songs, or even doggerel? In any case are the humorous songs and recitations that feed into periodical literature at this time, despite the often crudely produced and clumsily illustrated small scale publications they appear in, easily located as "down-market" productions aimed at vulgar though hardly culturally dispossessed readers? How far is the "popular" verse and doggerel that filled many a page in magazines aimed at middlebrow readers truly vernacular? How widely accessible was the framework of cultural allusions invoked by even the simplest poems? And, given that punning was a central mechanism for the activation of a humorous and satirical social vision in the Regency period, what levels of linguistic skills would a reader have needed to decode the verbal humor of the printed version of a song that had its origins and original performances in the supper rooms and penny gaffs of London?

Recognition of the origins of periodical verse in songs and lyrics first written for the concert room or other occasions of male sociability raises another set of interpretative difficulties to do with performativity. How far can the tone of a song/poem originally offered to an audience by means of performance be read off from a printed text that has been separated out from its performative occasion? …

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