Reflections from a Visiting Scholar: The “Minor English Poets Collection”: National Memory and Ecocritical Poetry

By Jerome Wynter, PhD, Adjunct Assistant Professor, BMCC, City University of New York

Jerome Wynter, PhD, Adjunct Assistant Professor, BMCC, City University of New York

Jerome Wynter, PhD, Adjunct Assistant Professor, BMCC, City University of New York

The Armstrong Browning Library (ABL) at Baylor University boasts an archive of nineteenth-century poetry entitled “The Minor English Poets’ Collection.” Purchased in 1986 from Pickering and Chatto, it contains 249 works of verse and dramatic verse published in the Age of Queen Victoria (1837-1901). My examination of this little-explored collection reveals that the title appears to be a misnomer. The collection features the poetry of authors whose writings appeared in print only occasionally, such as the members of the Glasgow Ballad Club, John Stuart Blackie (1809-1895), John Christopher Fitzachary, James Rennell Rodd (1858-1941) and Charles Whitworth Wynne (1869-1917). But it also includes the works of poets who were well established in their day and who have received serious critical attention in ours, including George Meredith (1828-1909) and William Ernest Henley (1849-1903). Many of the poets also identify themselves as Scots and Irish in their prefaces, and several of the poems are composed in a regional dialect of Celtic or Gaelic origin.

This anomaly notwithstanding, the collection is a rich resource. My purpose in exploring the work of these mid- to late-Victorian “minor” poets was to discover their contribution to the aesthetic, political and social poetic practices to the literature and culture of the period. Kirstie Blair reminds us that with the recovery of so many minor poets “much remains to be said about them and their importance in the literary cultures of their time, not to mention the political, social and religious contexts” (2013: 3). Blair is referring to laboring- and working-class poets, but her remark points to the need for a greater renewal of interest in the study of the work of Victorian minor poets of all social classes.

Reading upwards of twenty volumes of poetry, I investigated how these “minor English” poets might be a corrective to the viewpoint of the canonical poets. I charted the broad themes of daily life. Invariably, these are concerned with poverty, economic disparity between classes, death and loss, and the Christian faith. I also explored the poets’ engagement with local and contemporary politics, national histories and the representation of nature and the environment. It is the final two of these themes that I wish to focus on briefly, paying special attention to two works of ecocritical poetry.

National Memory

This photo from Earle’s Home Poems accompanies the poem “At the Grave of the Nation” (1900)

This photo from Earle’s Home Poems accompanies the poem “At the Grave of the Nation” (1900)

Many of the poems in the archive focused on national history with a concentration on the themes of national memory, patriotism and nostalgia for bygone times. There are tributes to English and Scottish heroes, both historical and literary: Sir Francis Drake (1540-1596), Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), the Duke of Wellington (Arthur Wellesley, 1769-1852), Robert Burns (1759-1796) and Lord Alfred Tennyson (1802-1892). Irish nationalism, on the other hand, is revived mainly through the poetic treatment of legends. In a patriotic homage to Sir Francis Drake in Ballads of the Fleet and Other Poems (1897), for example, Rodd represents the infamous pirate as a hero whose life on the seas is peerless, in “San Juan De Lua” written in two-line stanzas of heroic couplets. In another unapologetically patriotic poem Home Poems (1899), Walter Earle congratulates England for its successful wars, colonial history, and territorial expansion. His goal, it seems, is to bolster national pride and self-confidence. In one poem entitled “The New Century,” the speaker announces, “Well-done, good Land! thou hast another hundred years to go” (Stanza 4), concluding that “So shall our Empire be the Champion of the Right, – / Our Flag unstained, our Name upheld; – then come what may” (Stanza 6). Remarkably, Earle’s poems ignore the effects of colonization and England’s wars during the century.

Ecocritical Poetry

Robert, Earl of Lytton (1831-1891)

Robert, Earl of Lytton (1831-1891)

Poets whose work engages with nature and environment are far less nationalistic. Many of their poems evoke Romantic tropes of nature and the wilderness, but few could be considered ecocritical poetry, which The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (2012) defines as “related to the broader genre of nature poetry but can be distinguished from it by its portrayal of nature as threatened by human activities.” Two notable examples of ecocritical writing that denounce the threat human activities posed to the non-human world are the poems After Paradise or Legends of Exile and Other Poems (1887) and Ad Astra (1900) by Robert, Earl of Lytton (1831-1891) and Whitworth Wynne, respectively. Both poets tackle man’s progress and degradation of the natural world, though they do not necessarily foreground the natural world or wilderness. Commenting on poetry of this kind, Karla Armbruster and Kathleen R. Wallace assert that one of the ecocritic’s most important tasks today is to consistently “address a wider spectrum of texts” that are less obviously about “natural” landscapes (2001:2).

This hybrid poetry is represented by the work of both Lytton and Wynne. Writing under the pseudonym Owen Meredith, Lytton’s title poem “After Paradise” comprises several independent sections. The first, The Titlark’s Nest: A Parable, is a fifteen-stanza modified form of the ottava rima that obliquely celebrates nature’s reclamation of the space occupied by a now abandoned temple. Colossally and splendidly built on a Greek island, it had displaced the whistling meadow pipit or titlark, the Tmetothylacus tenellus. The first stanza describes the church “high on the white peak of a glittering isle” (Stanza 1). However, it now stands “a ruin’d fane within a wild vine’s bowers,” a vine that muffles “its marble-pillar’d peristyle” (Stanza 1). Beautifully rendered, these lines capture the irony of a once opulent place of worship, “girt by priests and devotees” where “[a] god once gazed upon the suppliant throng” (Stanza 3) that has been left to rot:

The place was solitary, and the fane

Deserted save that where, in saucy scorn

Of desolation’s impotent disdain,

The reveling leaves and buds and bunches born

From the wild vine along a roofless lane

Of mouldering marble columns roam’d, one morn

A titlark, by past grandeur unopprest,

Had boldly built her inconspicuous nest. (Stanza 2)

The stanza juxtaposes the dead and desolate church building with the emerging life of plant (“buds and bunches born”) and animal (“A titlark”). The diction is one of degradation and the tone is resentful. This is conveyed through the alliterative “saucy scorn / Of desolation’s impotent disdain.” However, this tone gives way to another contrasting and conflicting one: an expression of triumph enacted by the “revelling” of the leaves amid the “buds and bunches born / From that wild vine.” The poet reconciles the former oppressive “grandeur” of the temple with the victory of “one small bird” (Stanza 3). This is a poem of contrasts and repetition, and Lytton seems to emphasize the success of the non-human world over the intrusiveness of man-made structures and the degradation which follows their reckless desolation. In Whitworth Wynne’s Ad Astra, the speaker reflects on man’s torrid relationship with God and nature, and the disastrous effects of his achievements and progress in the last few decades of the expiring century. Written in iambic pentameter, the poem consists of 227 seven-line stanzas, rhyming ababbcc. The speaker is critical of the many advancements man has made in the last decade, especially in electricity in 1887, and ponders:

XXXI

And Man, to what achievements doth he move!

Who shall foretell his boundless destiny!

Out of the earth what untold treasure-trove!

What realms await him in the trackless sky!

The stored lightnings at his bidding fly,

The circuits of the World their bounds decrease

Before the smile of universal Peace.

Initial Findings

Lytton’s and Whitworth Wynne’s ecocritical poetry aside, the majority of the volumes in the Collection, especially by the 1890s poets, that I read reveal a widespread engagement with patriotism and celebration of national history, foreshadowing Rudyard Kipling’s poetic response to empire in The Five Nations (1903). Several poets commemorate the life of Lord Alfred Tennyson (“mighty of heart or brain”), some employing the language of empire to represent the poet laureate as “Warders of Empire’s outposts.” These are but a few of the many themes to be explored in “The Minor Poets’ Collection.” Overall, my initial investigation shows that the “minor English poets,” writing in the final two decades of the nineteenth century, present no clear break with the poetry of the canonical poets of the period, with some original reviewers commenting that the work of Lord Lytton and Whitworth Wynne (pseudonym for Charles Cayzer) is imitative of Tennyson and Robert Browning.

Through the generosity of the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University, which awarded me a visiting research fellowship in 2019, I am grateful for the first privilege of sampling this impressive collection of writings by “minor English poets” as part of a second major project. I thank all who made my time at the ABL and Baylor a success, in particular Christi Klempnauer, who was always available to make sure my needs were well seen to, and Assistant to the Curators Melvin Schuetz and the Director Jennifer Borderud.

Works Consulted

Armbruster, Karla, and Kathleen R. Wallace, eds. (2001). Beyond Nature Writing:        Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism. (Charlottesville, NC and London: University Press of Virginia).

Blair, Kirstie, and Mina Gorji, eds, (2013). Class and the CanonConstructing Labouring-Class Poetry and Poetics, 1750-1900. (London: Palgrave Macmillan. Introduction, 1-15).

Boos, Florence (2002). “Working-Class Poetry,” in Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman and Antony H. Harrison, eds., A Companion to Victorian Poetry. Malden, Mass. and Oxford: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., pp. 204-228.

Hoppen, K. Theodore. (1998). The Mid-Victorian Generation, 1846-1886. (Oxford: UOP).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Tale of Two Roberts: My ABL Journey (it’s just beginning….)

By Lesa Scholl, Ph.D., Head of Kathleen Lumley College, University of Adelaide, Australia

When I was preparing to come to the Armstrong Browning Library for my three-month fellowship, I had a range of plans that involved book proposals, chapter drafts, and well-thought-out structures for the research I was going to do. Previous experience should have warned me otherwise. I should have known that my project would become, in the words of Oscar Wilde’s Algernon Moncrieff, “quite exploded”—in the best possible way.

I first visited the ABL in April 2017, when I was primarily using the Nineteenth-Century Collection to examine Anglican pamphlets and tracts that engaged with the Eucharist and the way they talked about poverty, hunger, and social justice. On my last day in the library, I happened upon a particular pamphlet: Remarks on Fasting, and on the Discipline of the Body: In a Letter to a Clergyman. By A Physician (1848).

Title page of 'Remarks on Fasting'. The work was published anonymously by Rivingtons in 1848.

‘Remarks on Fasting’ was published anonymously by Rivingtons in 1848.

This pamphlet intrigued me, primarily because it was a medical doctor writing to a clergyman, not to speak against the practice of fasting, but to encourage appropriate ways in which to fast: ways that would promote bodily and spiritual health. He also gives a fascinatingly detailed description of what an appropriate diet ought to be—although he loses me when he tries to get me to refrain from coffee!

Pages 10 and 11 of Remarks details what the physician deems a regular diet so that one can ascertain whether they are eating too much or too little.

Pages 10 and 11 of Remarks details what the physician deems a regular diet so that one can ascertain whether they are eating too much or too little.

The discovery of this pamphlet led to my current book project, Fasting and Wasting: Religion, Nutrition, and Social Responsibility in Victorian Britain, which I’ve been working on during my semester at the ABL this year. Although I’d taken notes from the pamphlet, and had given papers relating to it since 2017, I was really excited to be able to hold it in my hands again. In this second full reading, I felt prompted to look at a particular text that it referenced. As I read Robert Wilson Evans’s The Ministry of the Body (1847), I realized that this was the text to which Remarks was responding: it was published in the previous year, also by Rivingtons, who had published Remarks, and my doctor-author was not only extremely flattering in his citations of Evans’s work, he proceeded to critique every criticism on fasting that the clergyman had presented! A doctor defending fasting to a clergyman—offering to teach the clergyman how to teach his flock to fast appropriately—isn’t exactly the expected trajectory.

I had found my clergyman, but my doctor continued to elude me. It took a number of Baylor librarians, the Wellcome Library, the Medical Heritage Library, the Royal College of Surgeons Library, the Lambeth Palace Library, and the National Library of Wales to find my answer: another Robert. Robert Bentley Todd, MD, one of the founders of King’s College Hospital in London, was identified.

Lambeth Palace Library’s second edition of Remarks includes a nineteenth-century pencil annotation on the title page that attributes the pamphlet to R.B. Todd, M.D.

Lambeth Palace Library’s second edition of Remarks includes a nineteenth-century pencil annotation on the title page that attributes the pamphlet to R.B. Todd, M.D.

That Todd was the doctor is almost too good to be true. His career and his religious faith, and his determination to include religious training in the training of medical students, fulfilled the desire I had to make his pamphlet one of the centerpieces of my project. The question remains as to why such a prolific writer and influential figure chose to write the pamphlet anonymously. While I haven’t ascertained this answer fully, I suspect it was because it was well-known that Todd was good friends with John Henry Newman from his Oxford days, and it had only been three years since Newman’s extremely controversial conversion to the Roman Church. Given that Newman was also known for his more ascetic religious practices, including extreme fasting, and Todd’s own High Church persuasion, having the pamphlet signed may have influenced the readership to smell the dangers of popery. In fact, Todd was known to be deeply critical of extreme fasting, and, as his pamphlet details, held to fasting as food restriction more than complete abstinence—a stance that resonated with Todd’s and Newman’s fellow Oxfordian, Edward Bouverie Pusey’s attitude toward fasting in Tracts for the Times. Indeed, the reduction of portions rather than complete abstinence was seen as a way to prevent gluttony and intemperance at the end of the fast, and was believed to be more difficult than abstinence.

With my two Roberts—Evans and Todd—at the helm, my research over the semester stretched out into the conversations that were occurring between medical doctors and theologians within nineteenth-century Britain, and the way in which these conversations impacted understandings of social responsibility and public health, as well as spiritual and moral wellness. The ABL introduced me to many sources I hadn’t encountered before, such as the multivolume Bridgewater Treatises (a collection of books written by theologians and medical scientists on the natural sciences as evidence of the glory and power of God manifest in the earth) and the Rivington Theological Library, both of which revealed the deep connections of thought and ethos between medicine and religion in the Victorian period.

The conversation became, as I should probably have expected, much larger and more exciting than I had anticipated. I had the opportunity to bring the materials together in a preliminary way at the ABL’s Benefactor’s Day, where I presented on Healthy Bodies, Healthy Souls: 19th-Century Medicine, Religion, and Literature.

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The ABL’s collection of materials on Alice Meynell and Christina Rossetti aided me in this as well, particularly in accessing Rossetti’s theological texts. This process made me rethink again the structure of my project: I didn’t want it to seem like the women were writing the light literary material while the men wrote the serious medical and theological texts. Rossetti was, in fact, taken quite seriously as a theologian in the nineteenth century, although that was an unusual role for women of the time. (She also happened to be treated by Queen Victoria’s doctors, but that’s a story for another day!)

The majority of the research I’ve been doing at the ABL has engaged with the way in which nineteenth-century doctors and theologians were thinking about the relationship between the body and the soul, and the way that then relates to the social body: how does our impetus to care for our physical bodies affect the way we think about the bodies around us? Are we too spiritual, too busy seeking God alone through prayer and fasting, to notice His presence in the poor bodies in our streets? That question was the crux of the nineteenth-century debate on the role of fasting in the Church. Many thinkers, both scientific and religious, in ways worth pondering in our own age of excess, saw a place for fasting that was both spiritually edifying, but focused outward toward the community: fasting to sympathize and understand; fasting to curb luxury and self-indulgence in an age of excessive consumerism when so many were starving; and, perhaps most importantly, in the words of Pusey, “to give to the widow, or the poor, the amount of that which thou wouldest have expended upon thyself.”