By Jerome Wynter, PhD, Adjunct Assistant Professor, BMCC, City University of New York
Among the vast collection of manuscripts, rare books, letters, periodicals, tracts and pamphlets at the Armstrong Browning Library (ABL) is a little-explored collection of primary works of verse and dramatic verse, 249 to be exact, entitled the Minor English Poets Collection. Baylor University purchased it in 1986 from Pickering and Chatto for its nineteenth-century archive. A printed inventory in the files at the ABL bears a fuller caption: “A Collection of Minor English Verse from the Age of Queen Victoria (1837-1901).” This collection, which contains work published from 1840 to 1900, is intriguing for several reasons: The title suggests that the authors are all “minor,” the verse are all written in English or that the writers are all English. In fact, the composition of this trove of nineteenth-century books belies the simplicity of the title, not to mention the problematics of the term “minor poets” to designate the status of Victorian poets.
Does the term “minor poets” mean non-established authors? Is it the obverse of canonical poets? Are minor poets occasional writers? Do minor poets have other full-time occupation? Are minor poets those writers who define themselves as such? Or are they working-class poets? Answers to these questions are pertinent to the researcher and critic if they are to avoid drawing false conclusions about the works in the Collection. Later, I will gesture toward an answer to some of these questions.
“Minor English Poets?”
Before looking at the anomaly in the title of the Collection, dear reader, let me first give you a sketch of its character. Of the 249 volumes:
- 9 are of unknown publication dates;
- 172 (two-thirds of the volumes) were published between 1879 and 1901;
- 9 are by women;
- 3 of the 9 female poets were well known in their day and are the subjects of recent scholarship – Janet Hamilton (1795-1873), Caroline Sheridan Norton (1808-1877) and Jean Ingelow (1820-1897);
- 10 or more of the male poets are well established including Alfred Austin (1835-1913), Austin Dobson (1840-1921), Andrew Lang (1844-1912), Richard Le Gallienne (1866-1947), George Meredith (1828-1909) and William Ernest Henley (1849-1903).
What can the title of the Collection tell us about its contents? Taken literally, this nomenclature may appear somewhat of a misnomer as the poets and poetry represented in it, as I have just shown, are not all by minor authors. The poems are also not all written in English, nor were all the authors English. The Scottish poets David Wingate’s “Sir Ivy’s Tower: A Legend of Tweedside” and Henry Johnson’s “Posie Prize” are composed in a regional dialect of Celtic or Gaelic origin. Wingate and Johnson contributed poems to the collection Ballads and Poems published by the Glasgow Ballad Club in 1885. Listen to stanza 24 of “Sir Ivy’s Tower”:
Oh sair they wrecked that fair castel,
Frae keep to tower abune,
And sair they burnt the chambers fine,
That nane micht dwell therein.
Humorously rendered, the speaker laments the catastrophic razing of the castle to his master.
If to some “minor poets” suggests working class, several of the minor writers in the Collection were of the middle and upper-middle classes. Included among the latter were the Scottish university professor and classical scholar John Stuart Blackie (1809-1895), author of A Song for Heroes (1890) in this Collection; two Irish scholars John K. Ingram (1823-1907), author of Sonnets and Other Poems (1900) and the lesser-known John Christopher Fitzachary, author of The Bridal of Drimna and Other Poems: Legendary, Patriotic, Sentimental, and Humorous (1883). Among the English middle-class poets in the Collection are the classical scholar and diplomatist James Rennell Rodd (1858-1941), author of Ballad of the Fleet and Other Poem (1897) and Charles Whitworth Wynne (1869-1917), whose volume Ad Astra, published in 1900, I discuss below. Wynne, a pseudonym for Charles Cayzer belonged to the famous Cayzer family of shipping merchants of Liverpool, Glasgow and London. Writing under the pseudonyms Owen Meredith and Neville Temple, Robert, Earl of Lytton (1831-1891) was another minor English poet of the upper middle class. He was a career diplomat, a viceroy in India from 1876 until 1880, and a correspondent and friend of Robert and Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
Lord Lytton’s literary career was overshadowed by the eminence of his father Edward Bulwer-Lytton, First Lord Lytton (1803-1873), according to the son’s biographer Aurelia Brooks Harlan. I will discuss the title poem in Lytton’s After Paradise or Legends of Exile and Other Poems, published in 1887, below.
In my investigation of the Collection, my purpose was to discover the contribution these mid- and late-Victorian “minor” poets made to the aesthetic, political and social poetic practices of the period and to Victorian literature and culture more broadly. I wanted to investigate how these authors might be a corrective to the viewpoint of the canonical poets. 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.
In the rest of this blog, I will briefly give a general sense of the themes and concerns of the works as they relate to my investigation. Following this, I will focus on a close reading of two volumes of what might be rightly called eco-critical poetry before concluding with a few remarks on my initial findings.
Reading upwards of twenty volumes of poetry, I charted the broad themes of daily life, the engagement with local and contemporary politics and national histories, and the representation of nature and the environment in these poets’ work. I find that the themes of daily life are concerned mainly with poverty, economic disparity between classes, celebration of life, death, loss, and the Christian faith. In the 1875 volume of The Book of the Nettercaps, Being Poutery, Poetry and Prose by the Scottish writer Alexander Burgess, for example, he composes several elegies and commemorative verses. In one poem, “In Memoriam,” the speaker reminds us that death awaits us all, “The day is fixed […] / But known to none but God– that day when he shall die” (Stanza 3). At the end of the poem he warns against being sorrowful or sentimental: “But all is o’er– ’tis vain to sigh and weep, / Or lavish praises on the silent dead” (Stanza 7).
On the theme of local and national histories, the poetry of the period focused primarily on national memory, patriotism and the nostalgia for bygone times. There are tributes to English, Scottish and Irish 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), Lord Alfred Tennyson (1802-1892), T. S. Coleridge (1772-1834), Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) and Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894). English and Scottish poets celebrate the greatness of England and the English through direct poetic representation of historical personages, while Irish nationalism is revived mainly through the poetic treatment of legends. In a patriotic poem and homage to Sir Francis Drake in Ballads of the Fleet and Other Poems (1897), James Rennell Rodd represents the infamous pirate and sea captain as a hero whose life on the seas is peerless. In his “San Juan De Lua,” written in two-line stanzas of heroic couplets, the persona (probably Rodd himself) recalls Drake’s success against the Spaniards in the Caribbean despite great odds: “And Drake in the little Judith had sailed in his kinsman’s train,” the speaker tells us, “With his all on earth in the venture to trade in the Spanish Main” (Stanza 3). Drake’s oath to capture the Spanish Armada is amplified when the Spaniards, under the command of Don Alvarez de Bazan, broke their word and destroyed several of the English ships. Towards the close of the poem, with the defeat of the Spaniards, the speaker tells us: “And wherever the wide seas open he will brook no bar or stay, / And there’s never a wave but English sails shall claim for their free highway.” (Stanza 127).
Still even more unapologetically patriotic is Walter Earle’s Home Poems. Written at the end of the century, Earle’s volume congratulates England for its successful wars, colonial history, and territorial expansion. Its goal, it seems, is to bolster national pride and self-confidence. In one poem entitled “The New Century,” the poetic voice 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). Earle’s poems gloss over the effects of colonization and England’s wars during the century, ignoring the ravages of the Crimean War of 1854 to 1856, the Indian Mutiny of 1857, or the Boer War which began in 1899. In the opening of the poem “Nelson and Wellington” in Blackie’s A Song for Heroes, he offers a stirring tribute to the eponymous figures: “I will sing of England’s glory, / Daring dash, and cool command, / when he brave high-hearted captains / Rode the sea and ruled the land.” John Walker, who also commemorates Wellington in an elegy entitled “On the Death of Wellington” in his 1879 collection Miscellaneous Poems, calls the admiral “noble, brave and true-hearted,” and Nelson “the just.”
Concerning the representation of nature and the environment, many poets write of flowers, plants, animals, the sunset, dawn and streams. However, these tend to be more an evocation of Romantic tropes rather than instances of ecocritical poetry. As defined by the The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (2012), “ecopoetry” is “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 denouncing the threat human activities posed to the non-human world are Lord Lytton’s After Paradise and Wynne’s Ad Astra.
As I have already noted After Paradise was published in June 1887, a year of tremendous scientific progress in England. The submarine boat was for the first time eclectically propelled and could provide a three-day supply of air for six men; a circular saw powered by an electric motor that could cut through bone in seconds during a surgical operation was invented; Edison invented a telephone which could send signals for three miles under water. There were also other firsts in photography, the Antarctic, and a vaccine for rabies (Gloucester Citizen, Dec. 31, 1887). Lord Lytton does not address these advancements directly, but Wynne likely had some of them in mind when he crafted Ad Astra, which means “to the stars” and is probably a gesture to Virgil’s Aeneid, published at the turn of the century in April 1900.
Both works address man’s progress and degradation of the non-human world even when their doing so is not always obvious. In their Introduction to Beyond Nature Writing: Expanding the Boundaries of Ecocriticism (2001), Karla Armbruster and Kathleen R. Wallace assert that the field of ecocriticism is dominated by “critical analyses of nature writing and literature of wilderness” (2); they argue 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 – that is, works that do not necessarily foreground the natural world or wilderness.
Comprised of several independent sections, the first part of the title poem “After Paradise or Legends of Exile” in Lord Lytton’s volume is a fifteen-stanza modified form of the ottava rima. Each line consists of ten syllables rather than the traditional Italian eleven, rhyming abababcc. It is entitled The Titlark’s Nest: A Parable. It 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 second stanza, which documents the presence of a titlark’s nest the bird has built in the temple, is even more poignantly rendered:
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.
The stanza juxtaposes the dead and desolate church building with the emerging life of plant (“buds and bunches born”) and animal (“A titlark” “built her inconspicuous nest”). The diction is one of degradation (“desolation,” “mouldering” – which the OED defines as decaying, “deserted” and “roofless”) and the tone is resentful. This is conveyed through the alliterative “saucy scorn / Of desolation’s impotent disdain.” This gives way, however, to another contrasting and conflicting tone. It is 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). Spiritually impoverished, the temple, “the sanctuaried space / Is vacant, voiceless, priestless, unpossest, / Save for the bird that in it builds her nest” (Stanza 14). This is a poem of contrasts and repetition. Lytton seems to be emphasizing the success of the non-human world over the intrusiveness of man-made structures and the degradation which follows their reckless desolation.
In Ad Astra, Wynne, who was trained as a barrister but preferred to compose poetry in the manner of Tennyson (ODNB), reflects on man’s torrid relationship with nature and with God as well as 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. Its Romantic opening (“The leaves are falling fast, and Winter drear / Steals on apace with fingers numb and cold”) develops the theme of man’s degradation of nature. In an extended metaphor, “Nature” is a lover, bride and wife. Ad Astra also addresses various other themes including man’s independence of God, his immortality, the supplanting of the Jews as God’s elect (Wynne believes that God has chosen the English instead), the place of America and nations of the British empire in the world, and man’s achievement and progress. It is the last of these themes that I wish to highlight. Ad Astra is overtly critical of man’s progress. Consider stanza thirty-one:
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.
The recurrence of exclamation points underscores the exasperation with and concern about man’s continued progress. “Boundless destiny” suggests man’s unstoppable advancement; yet with each achievement or modernization, he makes the globe smaller. “The circuits,” a reference to electrical circuits used in communication, connect the world, bringing it closer together: “The circuits of the World their bounds decrease.” The advancements in electricity in 1887 are clearly targeted here. In stanza 153, we are sked to “Consider the progress man hath made”; “The mighty strides within the last decade”; “And to what end are all his conquests moving?” His criticism rests on another theme mentioned earlier that of man’s solipsism which leads him to deny God’s help and His will.
What is striking about the work of these non-established authors that I have read in the Collection is the range of poetic forms which they employ, from heroic couplets to ballads to sonnets and ottava rima. Unlike Lytton’s and Wynne’s work, the volumes of most of the other male poets in the Collection (works published mainly in the final two decades of the century) reveal a widespread engagement with the themes of patriotism and national memory. The work of John Walker, James Rennell Rodd, Walter Earle, John Stuart Blackie and John Christopher Fitzarchary resembles that of seasoned poets such as William Ernest Henley, whose pamphlet For England’s Sake: Verses and Songs in Time of War (1900) foreshadows Rudyard Kipling’s poetic response to empire in his 1903 the Four Nations. Of particular interest, too, are the poems celebrating or commemorating Lord Alfred Tennyson. Thomas Watson’s poem “The Poet of the Age” in his Homely Pearls at Random Strung: Poems, Songs and Sketches (1873), praises and predicts Tennyson’s place as poet laureate; James Rennell Rodd’s “Tennyson” is a commemorative verse written in the language of empire; his Tennyson is “mighty of heart or brain, / Warders of Empire’s outposts, home with their own again” (Stanza 3). A number of Tennysonian poetry were also produced before and after the laureate’s death. According to original reviewers, the poetry of both Lord Lytton and Charles Whitworth Wynne are imitative of Tennyson.
Finally, to return to the title of the Collection, one of the characteristics of most of these works that I have read is the inclusion of an apology in their prefaces. Whether it was the humble writer such as the 1890s poet Elisha Walton who, in the preface to his Ballads and Miscellaneous Verses (1898), writes:
I’m not one of Poesy’s great high priests,
Who sing by its altar of fire;
But only, at one of the lesser feasts,
An acolyte in the choir.
The Master hath deeper and holier things,
But they’ve hidden from me away;
My lyre has only a few weak strings–
My song is a simple lay;
But if only a few of the strains have power
To float for awhile along,
And brighten a wearisome leisure hour,
’Tis well I have sung the song.
or the more sophisticated middle-class university professor such as Blackie, who declares in his preface that should his poetical treatment “unhappily fail under the censure of the judicious critic,” he would, for his students’ sake, “be happy to have pleased less, that I may instruct more,” all these poets share a similar appeal to the reader’s leniency of judgement.
Kirstie Blair has observed that this self-consciousness in presenting one’s work for public scrutiny is typical of the working-class poet. In the Introduction to Class and the Canon: Constructing Labouring-Class Poetry and Poetics, 1750-1900, a collection of essays she co-edited with Mina Gorji, Blair notes that there was a self-consciousness with which working-class writers engaged with poetic tradition, excusing “his or her lack in achieving the education and the leisure time necessary to produce poetry” (2013:1). She adds that these were expectations and standard practice “which governed the publishing of laboring-class poetry from the 1700s well into the Victorian period” (Ibid.). To have their work published, which was marketed to a middle-class audience (Boos 2002: 224), these writers were constrained to include the obligatory apology, disavowal, and sometimes self-deprecation in their prefaces (See Rundle 1999: 247-48). However, unlike Walton, Blackie was not working class. Yet his Preface expresses the same characteristic appeal as the manual laborer, autodidact, and other poets from the lower-middle classes (Boos 2002: 204).
Much work remains to be done in the Minor English Poets Collection. Through the generosity of the Armstrong Browning Library at Baylor University, which awarded me a visiting scholar’s fellowship this summer, I had the first privilege of sampling this impressive collection of writings by minor British poets (Scottish, Irish and English) as part of a second major project post the PhD. My time at the ABL and Baylor could not have been the success it was had it not been for the help of Christi Klempnauer, who was always available to make sure my needs were well seen to, and Melvin Schuetz and the Director Jennifer Borderud.
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 Canon: Constructing 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.
Harlan Brooks, Aurelia (1946). Owen Meredith: A Critical Biography of Robert, First Earl of Lytton. New York: Columbia University Press.