Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Victorian copiousness

We buried my mother two weeks ago today. It’s not something I’m really prepared to write about, but it does I hope go some way towards explaining the silence of the blog over the past few weeks.

So I’ve been back in the steam of South Florida for about a week and a half now, surrounded by a sift of books on – what else? – Victorian literature and culture. The one I’ve gotten most intimate with of late is Jerome Buckley’s third edition revision & expansion of Benjamin Woods’s Poetry of the Victorian Period (Scott, Foresman, 1965). My own copy of this intimidating red doorstopper indicates that I bought it two & a half decades ago for Alison Sulloway’s class on Victorian Poetry. I’m bemused that she thought we needed such a comprehensive text, as her syllabus (still folded into the book in all its purple-ditto’d glory) indicates that we only read Tennyson, Browning, Arnold, and Hopkins. But I’m grateful that she assigned it.

This is an anthology from the days when “men” were “men” and anthologies were anthologies indeed. Buckley tells us in the intro that the editors’ intention was to present the “dozen or fifteen” leading poets as thoroughly as possible: that means the reader gets what for a contemporary anthologist, constantly confronted by page limits and price barriers, is an incomprehensibly large amount of text: 165 large-format, double-columned pages (averaging out around 100 lines a page) of Tennyson (that’s every major poem – all of Maud and In Memoriam, about a quarter of Idylls of the King); 200 pages of Browning, 70 of Arnold, 80 of Swinburne, etc. (Women poets are sadly, but not entirely, underrepresented, which is the greatest shortcoming of this relic of another era. All of “Sonnets from the Portuguese,” but none of Aurora Leigh, for instance.)

Yes, I’ve been on an anthology kick lately, as I mentioned some weeks ago. I realized a while back that the clock had definitely run out on my emulating Pound’s ambition (to know more about poetry by the age of 30 than “any man living”). But I thought to myself, maybe if I trim that ambition a bit – perhaps by 50 (and I still have a few years before then) I can know the canon of English poetry as well as any of my peers?

Now a long time back I realized (see multiple blog posts, by me and practically anyone) that it’s impossible to keep up with contemporary poetry. Anyone who claims he or she “knows” what’s out there is bluffing at best; there’s just too much, and the territory hasn’t been mapped at all adequately. It’s a rare month that I don’t pull down a few books from my “unread” shelf and discover poets whose works excites the heck out of me. (For the record: the latest run of exciting discoveries has included Camille Martin, Jill Magi, and Rachel Zolf.) But I’m always dogged by the sense that I don’t know enough about pre-20th-century poetry.

So I began by reading straight thru Christopher Ricks’s Oxford Book of English Verse, and then (more topically) John Dixon Hunt’s Oxford Book of Garden Verse. Now I’m reading, two poems at a sitting, Roger Lonsdale’s New Oxford Book of Eighteenth Century Verse. Why the Buckley/Woods Poetry of the Victorian Period? Well, as I plunge deeper into Ruskin, I grow more and more conscious of my own ignorance of the period as a whole. Sure, I’ve read a handful of Victorian novels, and took a couple of courses on Victorian poetry along the way – and suspect I know the period about as well as most scholars of 20th-c. American poetry – but I want to get into it more deeply, more thoroughly.

Tennyson, whom I’ve been living with for the past week, was for a long time a byword for Victorian otioseness & sententiousness. Yup, there’s plenty of that. But I’m reminded, rereading him in bulk, that the guy was also possessed of a fantastic lyrical ear, certainly the best of the generation after Keats. There’s no gainsaying the psychological drama of Maud, certainly, and I’m definitely down with those who see In Memoriam as a kind of model for all manner of twentieth-century experiments in the long personal poem. (I wouldn’t recommend reading it after a recent bereavement, however.) When Tennyson is good, he’s very good indeed. The problem, of course, is extracting those moments of shiny lyricism or exquisitely turned psychological insight from the great masses of water-treading verse in which they’re often embedded.

The Victorians wrote a lot. They probably wrote too much. Gertrude Himmelfarb, whose books I have been turning over (to little profit & frequent irritation) remarks in an essay on Leslie Stephen (Virginia Woolf’s father):

There cannot have been too many writers like Anthony Trollope, who kept a schedule and a watch in front of him to make sure that he turned out his 250 words every quarter of an hour for a minimum of three hours. But the sense of writing as a regular occupation, not beholden to inspiration, was and still is typical among English intellectuals. Stephen himself was no more productive than many others; he averaged three or four 8000-word articles a week (each at one sitting, it is, incredibly, reported), apart from incidental writing tasks. This was the sportsmanlike way of writing: no fuss, no anguish, the game played at the appointed time, so many minutes to the period, so many periods to the event.
I like that – “a regular occupation, not beholden to inspiration.”

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