Book Review: Victorian poetry when?

Victorian Poetry Now: Poets, Poems, Poetics, by Valentine Cunningham, Chichester: Wiley Blackwell, 2011, xiii + 537 pp., £95 (hardback), ISBN 978-0-631-20826-6

Reviewed byEmma Mason, University of Warwick


From his work on dissenting religious traditions to the significance of intertextual writing and reading practices and the status of critical theory in literary studies, Valentine Cunningham has shaped for himself a scholarly guise at once robustly intellectual and critically jocose.  His critical voice – homiletic and idiosyncratic – resonates with a deep commitment to literary texts as well as a perceptive and often provocative humour that is not without hostility to those critics he feels are disrespectful of the traditions with which he is engaged. One such tradition is Victorian poetry, a subject that Cunningham explains appeared before him in its ‘multi-pronged complexity’ (vii) during editorial work on his The Victorians: An Anthology of Poetry and Poetics (2000). As the title of this compilation betrays, the ‘real’ Victorians themselves secured Cunningham’s main interest as editor of the volume, an interest that he reiterates in his new book, Victorian Poetry Now: Poets, Poems, Poetics.  ‘My sub-title’, he writes, ‘puts “poets” first, because I’m not afraid of the fact that poems are produced by poets, actual men and women, living in the real world, who are the actual thinking, feeling, writing channels for all the contents and discontents which poems evince’ (vii).   For Cunningham, Victorian poets are historically embedded, self-consciously poeticizing and aestheticizing beings who position themselves through both newness (Cunningham devotes discussions to their construction of selfhood, modernity, ‘fleshliness’, and formal innovation) and reception (in their narrations of Biblical texts, Shakespeare, Dante, medievalism, classicism).  The age in which they write is, after all, ‘the most aweingly productive period of poetry there’s ever been, in any language’ (vi), Cunningham claims, and his book is in part a way to make sense of, give value to, reveal the intricacy of, and take pleasure in, the reading experience of such poetry.

Cunningham surveys Victorian poetry’s variety, its compelling rhythms and prosody, its linguistics and narrativity, its hermeneutics and histories, with a spontaneity of style that never ceases to refresh and enliven its reader.  One feels transported to the lecture hall while reading Cunningham’s prose, addressed by a passionate and lively speaker who deftly moves between content and form from a foundation of vast knowledge about the period’s religious, medical, criminological, political, social and aesthetic discourses and stories. Introducing a discussion of the bodily in his chapter ‘Fleshly Feelings’, for example, we are told that: ‘Victorian poets are frequently morbid, and their body encounters are often grim in the extreme. Poets and poems frequent hospital wards, death-beds, morgues. Poems commonly pathologize the body. Bad-body consciousness keeps driving poet and poem to some sick person’s bed-side, into hospital, down to the morgue. Tormented poetic spirits engender poem after poem about tormented bodies. The poetic atmosphere is intensely psychosomatic. Stories of body illnesses as mirrors of mental ones, abound.’ This style – pacey, excitable, revelling in its material – pulls one into Cunningham’s descriptions, close readings and ever-present anecdotes.  Victorian Poetry Now is an encyclopedic book, not simply because of its five hundred pages plus of close readings that wind through the maze-like intricacies of works by poets like Rossetti, Hopkins, Tennyson, Browning and Wilde, but also due to its magpie-like references to the private and public lives and writings of these poets and their society.  Cunningham’s explorations of Victorian ‘rhyming-games’ (108), ‘blush-readers’ (271), theologized elegy (364), ‘Lucretian modernity’ (459) and ‘ekphrasticity’ (482) compel as they entertain and undergraduates in particular will find this a brightly lit introduction to the field.

What works in the lecture hall, however, can get lost in critical translation. Even as I enjoyed reading the book, I was made equally uncomfortable by its constant jabs at and dismissal of current scholarship in the field, as well as the many non-canonical poets with whom Cunningham toys. In a section called ‘Little Dinky: Little Kinky’, for example, Cunningham reads Charles Tennyson Turner as a neurotic and obsessive poetic paedophile, a collector of little things and little girls: ‘His poems simply fetishize the small subject. They alight one after another on some tiny thing: coins, insects (especially bees and flies), birds (robin, wren, lark, corn-crake, bitterns, starling, nightingale, rooks, and so on and on), and especially on children – an occasional boy-child, but mainly a huge crowd of little girls . . . he rivalled the Revd Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) in his greed for young female company’ (168).  His reading of Tennyson Turner, Carroll and later Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper (a relationship marked, he says, by a ‘whiff of paedophilia’, 248) are problematic, not simply because one might find them questionable, if offensive, but because they are made without reference to any contextual or critical material on sexuality and the Victorian child. Perhaps Cunningham’s bantering mode here is meant to unsettle a reader such as myself, my love of the field anchored in and energized by Isobel Armstrong’s Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (1993), which sought to politicize and theorize the aesthetic and poetic in a way Cunningham refuses.  For sure, I find Cunningham’s references to Rossetti as ‘Ms Rossetti’ (67) or ‘virginal Christina G’ (347) patronizing; his misspelling of Yopie Prins’ name (as ‘Yoppie Prins’) slapdash; his references to ‘Oxford DPhils’ rather than published monographs odd; his description of William Barnes’ dialect rhymes as ‘daft’ (106) gauche; his contempt for the ‘feminist praise-singing’ of ‘LEL, Felicia Hemans and Michael Field’ (ix) difficult; and his apparently snap judgements of other critical arguments as either ‘good’ or ‘bad’ disrespectful. Cunningham’s attack on Joseph Bristow’s reading of ‘Dover Beach’ (Literary History, 4.1, 1995), for example, sets up the ideas only to knock them down. Bristow’s claim that he is not ‘trying to concoct a previously unknown homoeroticism between Arnold and Clough’ is dismissed by Cunningham in order that he can belittle his reading anyway as an inquiry into ‘sexual orientation and worries by a pair of as it were boyfriends about the prospect of upcoming marriage’ (216). One is almost forced to hear Cunningham’s louche stress on the word ‘boyfriends’ here.

Alas, I do find this jeering reduction of the field troubling. I acknowledge Cunningham might want me to be troubled in order to dismantle a critical arena that he finds insufficient or lacking (although he is never frank about why he likes or dislikes a particular viewpoint). This in itself is tricky, though, especially in light of the book’s own insufficiencies. Erik Gray has written elsewhere of the book’s innumerable errors in punctuation, quotation (unhelpful in readings that rest on careful scansion) and basic sources (Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians becomes The Great Victorians, Rossetti’s ‘Later Life’ sequence loses four sonnets in Cunningham’s count, and Tennyson’s Idylls of the King gains a ‘The’ in its title). [i] While one might argue that Gray’s astute eye reveals easily amended mistakes, I think these errors collectively cast doubt on Cunningham’s self-fashioning as a panoptical observer (but not reader) of Victorian criticism. His note on an article about the Rossettis as ‘Another example of deconstructionist critics’ problems with the religious subject’ (192), for example, pays no attention to the significant return of the religious and theological into discussions of Victorian poetry over the last ten years. Much of this work has been circulated by carefully theoretical readers who have been introduced to, rather than closed off from, the nuances of religious forms (prayer, sermons, hymns) as well as the question of what it means to believe and have faith in God through deconstruction, phenomenology and the ‘new formalism’, as well as historicism and cultural studies.

With the exception of a few references to critics like Armstrong, Bristow and ‘Yoppie’, the study all but ignores the critics that have so deftly shaped the field of Victorian poetry now.  Where is Cunningham’s attention to Roger Ebbatson’s eloquent and attentive readings of Tennyson Turner in his brandishing of his poetry as paedophilic, for instance? What of the exciting research into prosody and form in his swatting away of figures like Barnes or Hemans or Field? More pressing still is the question of Cunningham’s methodology and even his argument: for a book so directed at how Victorian poetry is read now, it is considerably out of date and feels more like a collection of undergraduate lectures than a critical monograph. On the other hand, there is no question that Victorian Poetry Now charms the reader, and its sometimes lucid relation to poems has a warmth and cheer that some critics lack in their rush to proclaim and publish.  I suspect (hope?) that Cunningham might wish to gently tease and cajole his fellow Victorianists into admitting to what they find important and moving and imperative about the period’s poetry, even if he does so in a slightly wrong-footed manner. It is in this spirit that readers might usefully approach a book that is, I think, written to provoke as much as inform.

Emma Mason is Reader in the Department of English and Comparative Literary Studies at the University of Warwick. She is the author of Women Poets of the Nineteenth Century (2006), Nineteenth Century Religion and Literature, with Mark Knight (2006), The Cambridge Introduction to William Wordsworth (2010) and the editor of Elizabeth Jennings: The Collected Poems (2012). She is currently working on a study of nineteenth-century poetry and forgiveness.

[i] (accessed 28 March 2012).

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