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).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Giving Nineteenth Century Women Writers a Voice and a Face — Caroline Sheridan Norton (1808-1877)

I have, as I said before, learned the English law piecemeal, by suffering under it. My husband is a lawyer, and he has taught it me, by exercising over my tormented and restless life every quirk and quibble of its tyranny; of its acknowledged tyranny; acknowledged, I say, not by wailing, angry, despairing women, but by Chancellors, ex-Chancellors, legal reformers and members of both Houses of Parliament.

Caroline Norton.  From A Letter to the Queen on Lord Chancellor Cranworth’s Marriage and Divorce Bill. London: Longman, Brown, Green and Longmans, 1855.

 Dr. Kieran Dolin, professor of English and Cultural Studies at the University of Western Australia, has written several articles on Caroline Norton. He is particularly interested in Caroline Norton’s writings and her activism to reform the law relating to women in Victorian England. He suggested the quotation above.

Born on March 22, 1808, the third child of seven, Caroline Elizabeth Sarah Sheridan seemed destined to become an established writer.  Her mother was a novelist and her grandfather was a famous playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  Not surprisingly, the young Caroline expressed a knack for literature.  At age thirteen, she had already written her first booklet, The Dandies Rout. At Shalford boarding school in Surrey, George Norton noticed the beautiful Caroline, which resulted in their marriage in 1827.

Caroline and George Norton seemed an almost perfect couple. Caroline was beautiful and smart and George Norton was the brother of her friend, also a barrister, and a Member of Parliament.  However, her personal life soon became riddled with strife. To Caroline’s surprise, Norton turned out to be a drunk with a violent temper, and he often mismanaged money.  In English Laws for Women in the Nineteenth Century (1854), Caroline Sheridan Norton gives accounts of being beaten as early as two weeks into their marriage.  She writes about harsh experiences, such as having a hot tea-kettle purposely set on her hand.  Through it all, she was still able to publish her first poetic work titled The Sorrows of Rosalie: A Tale with Other Poems in 1829.  This work was well received by the public.  Despite the troubles, the marriage produced three sons named Fletcher, Brinsley, and William. Caroline was even beaten weeks before she gave birth to her third son William.

English law made it extremely hard to get a divorce, especially since Caroline had endured such harsh treatment for so long. After she was accused of having an affair with the Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, George Norton became even more vicious.  He took both Melbourne and Caroline to court, but both were found innocent of adultery.  Although Caroline Norton was found innocent, she could not divorce George Norton, and the abuse continued.  Norton took away Caroline’s children, and the fight began.  Advocating for women’s rights became Caroline Norton’s primary concern.  She wrote a pamphlet titled “The Separation of Mother and Child,” which promoted The Infant Custody Act of 1839.  The more Caroline campaigned, the more she was able to get accomplished.  Caroline Norton is well-known for writing A Letter to the Queen which advocated for the rights of married women in 1855.  She also helped to pass acts such as the 1857 Matrimonial Act and the Married Woman’s Property Act (1870).  Caroline eventually got custody of her two living children after they were twenty-one.  Her success as an activist eventually led to her ability to divorce George Norton, but she did not remarry until after his death.  At the advanced age of sixty-nine, Caroline Sheridan married a Scottish politician named William Maxwell Stirling.  She only enjoyed three months of a blissful marriage before she died in 1877.

Caroline Norton. “The Invalid” in The Keepsake. London: Hurst, Chance, and Company, 1840.

Caroline Norton’s short story, “The Invalid,” published in the 1840 edition of The Keepsake, displayed above, tells the story of a young lady, Mariana, who is on her deathbed when her sister, Tersa, comes to visit. The story not only highlights education for women, but Norton also exposes the tragedy that can befall a woman who is wrongly in love. Educated by her uncle, Mariana learns to “lay a bridge stone by stone” between her mind and that of her learned uncle.  Norton further makes the claim that the best “education comes through free intercourse with superior and cultivated companions.” This focus on the education of women provides a major theme in the short story. Though Count Arnstein, a man who comes to live with Mariana and her uncle, dislikes her intellect at first, he quickly begins to love her for it. Consequently, Norton builds her case for a prominent role of women in politics through the character and competence of Mariana. In addition, a major theme of the short story is that of improper love. Mariana falls in love with Count Arnstein, and he reciprocates. However, after he tells her that he is married and begs her to accompany him to visit his wife, she is heartbroken and becomes very ill. She later recalls to Tersa just before her death, “It is that I have seen at one dreadful glance the shattering of earth’s best illusion.” Ultimately, Mariana dies alone and forgotten. Norton’s portrayal of Mariana’s demise is a strong social commentary on the lack of options for a woman without a husband or any prospects. The story she writes echoes much of her own experience.

The Armstrong Browning Library has seven nineteenth-century books authored by Caroline Norton, including this unusual copy of The Sorrows of Rosalie.

Caroline Norton.  “A Royal Christmas Gift to the Duchess of Clarence, Christmas 1828.” Autograph Manuscript, in The Sorrows of Rosalie: A Tale with Other Poems. London: J. Ebers, 1828.

This volume, with Norton’s poem inscribed on the front leaves, was presented to the Duchess of Clarence by August Fitz-Clarence, the illegitimate son of her husband, the Duke of Clarence. In June of the following year the Duke succeeded to the throne of England as William IV and the Duchess became Queen Adelaide.

                                                                     Nancy Gross
Bianca Arechiga
Mary Philippus

Melinda Creech