Anthologies reshaped Victorian readers’ experience of Romantic poetry, naturalized Romantic poems in the Victorian anthology, suppressed material that might offend Victorian sensibilities, elided or neutralized political content, and fostered ways of encountering and responding to Romantic poetry — Tom Mole (187)

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imothy Mole’s What the Victorians Made of Romanticism (2018) convincingly argues that Victorian anthologies of poetry conveyed a very limited and much distorted version of Shelley, Byron, Wordsworth and others to generations of readers. According to him, “anthologies became the delivery system for literary leisure in capitalist modernity, injecting bite-sized chunks of culture into the intervals of a life of labor. Francis Turner Palgrave imagined his Golden Treasury being picked up in ‘the scanty hours that most men spare for self-improvement’” (186). To this observation one may add that anthologies of poetry functioned like Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy (text) as a positive response to the Reform Bills of 1867 and 1885 — that is, as explicit attempts to share British high culture, or what was shaped as high culture, with hoards of the rapidly expanding reading public.

Gender prejudices also shaped attitudes toward the readers, since anthologies “were often thought of as books for amateurs and tyros, who skipped and dipped and were disproportionately female, as opposed to serious readers, by implication male, who immersed themselves in collected editions. They often targeted lower-class audiences, offering what Palgrave called ‘a storehouse of delight to Labour and to Poverty’ Offering the choicest poetry in the cheapest formats, anthologies circulated the most refined thoughts to the most unrefined readers” (186).

Victorian editors like Palgrave distorted works by authors such as Shelley and Bryon by omitting their controversial statements about religion and politics, but by far their most significant influence on later nineteenth-century readers’ ideas of Romantic poetry derive from the fact that most readers encountered these poets in anthologies. The very notion of an anthology, a selection of brief passages and short lyric forms, requires the editor to exclude all major long poems, such Wordsworth’s The Prelude, Coleridge’s “The Ancient Mariner,” Scott's Marmion, and Byron’s Childe Harold's Pilgrimage and Don Juan. What we may term the anthology effect screens from late-Victorian readers from “many of the most famous Romantic poems [which] are long, narrative, or even epic”:

The problem here was not thematic but pragmatic. Even if the subjects and ideas of Romantic poetry continued to appeal to Victorian readers, there was a mismatch between the formats in which that poetry originally appeared — usually as individual poetry volumes—and the formats in which poetry from earlier periods mostly circulated to wide audiences in the later nineteenth century — in various kinds of anthologies. To handle this mismatch, nineteenth-century anthologies functioned like “magic casements opening on the foam”: they offered a portal to the oceanic breadth of Romantic poetry, while also framing and limiting the reader’s view of it. [187]

Mole understandably emphasizes the effect of the anthology’s necessary emphasis upon lyric or short forms upon Victorian views of Romantic poetry. The effect is broader and more important than that. Indeed, as C. S. pointed out in his pioneering Preface to “Paradise Lost”, by the twentieth century this overwhelming emphasis upon lyric poetry created audiences whose members did not understand how to read epic poetry at all. One sees the effect of overemphasizing lyric forms in the fact that many early- and mid-twentieth-century scholars read poems as different as The Faerie Queen, Paradise Lost, and The Divine Comedy as if these poems bunches of lyrics separated by pedestrian verse. Another Victorian legacy!

Related material

Bibliography

Lewis, C.S. A Preface to Paradise Lost (1941). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1961.

Mole, Tom. What the Victorians Made of Romanticism: Material Artifacts, Cultural Practices, and Reception History. Princeton: Princeton University press, 2018. [Review by George P. Landow].


Last modified 29 August 2018