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Edmund Clarence Stedman, ed. (1833–1908). A Victorian Anthology, 1837–1895. 1895.


WHILE this book is properly termed an Anthology, its scope is limited to the yield of one nation during a single reign. Its compiler’s office is not that of one who ranges the whole field of English poetry, from the ballad period to our own time,—thus having eight centuries from which to choose his songs and idyls, each “round and perfect as a star.” This has been variously essayed; once, at least, in such a manner as to render it unlikely that any new effort, for years to come, will better the result attained.

On the other hand, the present work relates to the poetry of the English people, and of the English tongue, that knight peerless among languages, at this stage of their manifold development. I am fortunate in being able to make use of such resources for the purpose of gathering, in a single yet inclusive volume, a Victorian garland fairly entitled to its name. The conditions not only permit but require me—while choosing nothing that does not further the general plan—to be somewhat less rigid and eclectic than if examining the full domain of English poesy. That plan is not to offer a collection of absolutely flawless poems, long since become classic and accepted as models; but in fact to make a truthful exhibit of the course of song during the last sixty years, as shown by the poets of Great Britain in the best of their shorter productions.

Otherwise, and as the title-page implies, this Anthology is designed to supplement my “Victorian Poets,” by choice and typical examples of the work discussed in that review. These are given in unmutilated form, except that, with respect to a few extended narrative or dramatic pieces, I do not hesitate to make extracts which are somewhat complete in themselves; it being difficult otherwise to represent certain names, and yet desirable that they shall be in some wise represented.

At first I thought to follow a strictly chronological method: that is, to give authors succession in the order of their birth-dates; but had not gone far before it was plain that such an arrangement conveyed no true idea of the poetic movement within the years involved. It was disastrously inconsistent with the course taken in the critical survey now familiar to readers of various editions since its original issue in 1875 and extension in 1887. In that work the leading poets, and the various groups and “schools,” are examined for the most part in the order of their coming into vogue. Some of the earlier-born published late in life, or otherwise outlasted their juniors, and thus belong to the later rather than the opening divisions of the period. In the end, I conformed to the plan shown in the ensuing “Table of Contents.” This, it will be perceived, is first set off into three divisions of the reign, and secondly into classes of poets,—which in each class, finally, are quoted in order of their seniority. For page-reference, then, the reader will not depend upon the “Contents,” but turn to the Indexes of Authors, First Lines, and Titles, at the end of the volume.

It is an arbitrary thing, at the best, to classify poets, like song-birds, into genera and species; nor is this attempted at all in my later division, which aims to present them chronologically. Time itself, however, is a pretty logical curator, and at least decides the associations wherewith we invest the names of singers long gone by. Those so individual as to fall into no obvious alliance are called “distinctive,” in the first and middle divisions at large. Song and hymn makers, dramatists, meditative poets, etc., are easily differentiated, and the formation of other groups corresponds with that outlined in “Victorian Poets.” Upon the method thus adopted, and with friendly allowance for the personal equation, it seems to me that a conspectus of the last sixty years can be satisfactorily obtained. The shorter pieces named in my critical essays, as having distinction, are usually given here. While representing the poetic leaders most fully, I have not overlooked choice estrays, and I have been regardful of the minor yet significant drifts by which the tendencies of any literary or artistic generation frequently are discerned. In trying to select the best and most characteristic pieces, one sometimes finds, by a paradox, that an author when most characteristic is not always at his best. On the whole, and nearly always with respect to the elder poets whose work has undergone long sifting, poems well known and favored deserve their repute; and preference has not been given, merely for the sake of novelty, to inferior productions. Authors who were closely held to task in the critical volume are represented, in the Anthology, by their work least open to criticism. Finally, I believe that all those discussed in the former book, whether as objects of extended review or as minor contemporaries, are represented here, except a few that have failed to justify their promise or have produced little suited to such a collection. In addition, a showing is made of various poets hopefully come to light since the extension of my survey, in 1887. Others of equal merit, doubtless, are omitted, but with youth on their side they may well await the recognition of future editors.

This Introduction goes beyond the scope of the usual Preface, in order that those who (as students of English poetry) avail themselves of the Anthology, and who have but a limited knowledge of the modern field, may readily understand the general and secondary divisions. To such readers a word concerning the period may be of interest.

In a letter to the editor, Canon Dixon speaks of “the Victorian Period” as “one of the longest in literary history; perhaps the longest.” With regard to an individual, or to a reign, length of years is itself an aid to distinction, through its prolongation of a specific tendency or motive. The reign now closing has been one in which a kingdom has become an empire; its power has broadened and its wealth and invention have increased as never before. In science,—and in works of the imagination, despite the realistic stress of journalism,—twenty years of the recent era outvie any fifty between the Protectorate and the beginning of our century. During every temporary lull we fear sterility, but one need not confine his retrospection to the blank from 1700 to 1795 to be assured that an all-round comparison with the past must be in our favor. While, then, it is but a hazardous thing to estimate one’s own day, the essays to which the Anthology is a complement would not have been written but for a conviction that the time under review was destined to rank with the foremost times of England’s intellectual activity,—to be classed, it well might be, among the few culminating eras of European thought and art, as one to which even the title of “Age” should be applied. We speak of Queen Anne’s time; of the Georgian Period, and we have epochs within periods; but we say the Age of Pericles, the Augustan Age, the Elizabethan Age, and it is not beyond conjecture that posterity may award the master epithet to the time of Carlyle and Froude, of Mill and Spencer and Darwin, of Dickens, Thackeray, and their successors, of Tennyson and Browning,—and thus not only for its wonders of power, science, invention, but for an imaginative fertility unequalled since “the spacious days” of the Virgin Queen. The years of her modern successor, whose larger sway betokens such an evolution, have been so prolonged, and so beneficent under the continuous wisdom of her statesmen, that the present reign may find no historic equal in centuries to come. An instinctive recognition of this seems now to prevail. Even the adjective “Victorian” was unfamiliar, if it had been employed at all, when I used it in the title of a magazine essay (the germ of my subsequent volume) published in January, 1873. It is now as well in use as “Elizabethan” or “Georgian,” and advisedly, for the cycle bearing the name has so rounded upon itself that an estimate of its characteristic portion can be made ab extra; all the more, because in these latter days “the thoughts of men” are not only “widened,” but hastened toward just conclusions, as if in geometrical progression. What, then, my early essays found an ample ground for study, the present compilation seeks to illustrate, and I trust that, although restricted to brief exemplifications, it will somewhat justify this preliminary claim.

In the following pages, then, the period is divided into, first, the early years of the reign; second, the Victorian epoch proper; third, the present time. A survey of the opening division brings out an interesting fact. Of the poets cited as prominent after 1835 and until the death of Wordsworth, scarcely one shows any trace of the artistic and speculative qualities which are essentially Victorian. Well-informed readers may be surprised to find so many antedating the influence of Tennyson, untouched by his captivating and for a long time dominating style. Their work is that of a transition era, holding over into the present reign. It was noted for its songs and sentiment. The feeling of Wordsworth is plain in its meditative verse; yet to this time belong Bulwer, Macaulay, the “Blackwood” and “Bentley” coteries, “Barry Cornwall,” and those “strayed Elizabethans,” Darley and Beddoes. Milman, Talfourd, Knowles, and others are not quoted, partly on account of their lack of quality, but chiefly because at their best they are late Georgian rather than early Victorian. Praed comes in as the pioneer of our society-verse; Elliott as a bard of “the new day.” In fact, the Reform Bill crisis evoked the humanitarian spirit, poetically at its height in the writings of Hood and Mrs. Browning. To include Wordsworth, the Queen’s first laureate of her own appointment, farther than by a prelude on “the passing of the elder bards” would be to rob the Georgian Period of the leader of one of its great poetic movements; yet Wordsworth breathes throughout our entire selection, wherever Nature is concerned, or philosophic thought, and not only in the contemplative verse, but in the composite, and never more strenuously than in Palgrave and Arnold, of the middle division, and such a poet as Watson, of the third. Landor, though the comrade of Southey, the foil of Byron, and the delight of Shelley, begins this volume, as he began its predecessor; for Landor with his finish, his classical serenity, and his wonderful retention of the artistic faculty until his death—a score of years after the Accession—belonged to no era more than to our own,—and we may almost say that in poetry he and Swinburne were of the same generation.

Two thirds of our space are naturally required for selections from the typical division. This is seen to begin with the appointment of Tennyson as laureate, since he scarcely had a following until about that date. In him we find, on the reflective side, a sense of Nature akin to Wordsworth’s, and on the æsthetic, an artistic perfection foretokened by Keats,—in other words, insight and taste united through his genius had their outcome in the composite idyllic school, supremely representative of the Victorian prime. Tennyson idealized the full advance of nineteenth century speculation, ethical and scientific, in the production of “In Memoriam,” and to the end in such a poem as “Vastness.” Possibly, also, it was out of his early mediæval romanticism that the next most striking school arose with Rossetti and his fellow Pre-Raphaelites who are grouped as Poets of the Renaissance: their revival including both Greek and Gothic modes and motives, as finally combined in the masterwork of Swinburne. The third and equal force of the epoch is that of Browning, long holding his rugged ground alone, as afterward with half the world to stay him; but, like other men of unique genius, not the founder of a school,—his manner failing in weaker hands. In Arnold’s composite verse the reflective prevails over the æsthetic. Besides these chiefs of the quarter-century are various “distinctive” poets, as in the earlier division, each belonging to no general group. Then we have the songsters, for whom all of us confess a kindly feeling; the balladists withal, and the dramatists,—such as they are; also the makers of lighter verse, and other lyrists of a modest station, often yielding something that lends a special grace to an Anthology.

The closing era is of the recent poets of Great Britain, and begins very clearly about twenty years ago. At that date, the direct influences of Tennyson, Browning, Swinburne, and Rossetti began to appear less obviously, or were blended, where apparent, in the verse of a younger generation. The new lyrists had motives of their own, and here and there a new note. There was a lighter touch, a daintiness of wit and esprit, a revival of early minstrel “forms,” and every token of a blithe and courtly Ecole Intermédiaire: evidence, at least, of emancipation from the stress of the long dominant Victorian chord. The change has become decisive since the “Jubilee Year,” to which my supplementary review was extended, and of late we have a distinctly lyrical, though minor song-burst, even if the mother country be not, as in its springtime of pleasant minstrelsy, “a nest of singing-birds.” In the later ditties England’s hawthorn-edged lanes and meadows come to mind, the skylark carols, and we have verse as pastoral as Mr. Abbey’s drawings for Herrick and Goldsmith. This, to my view, if not very great, is more genuine and hopeful than any further iteration of “French Forms,” and the same may be occasionally said for those town-lyrics which strive to express certain garish, wandering phases of the London of to-day. Irish verse, which always has had quality, begins to take on art. But the strongest recent work is found in the ballads of a few men and women, and of these balladists, one born out of Great Britain is first without a seeming effort. As for the drama (considering the whole reign), its significant poetry, beyond a few structures modelled after the antique, and those of Horne, Taylor, and Swinburne, is found mainly in the peculiar and masterful work of Browning; nevertheless, lyrical song indicates a dramatic inspiration, because it is so human, and if the novel did not afford a continuous exercise of the dramatic gift, I would look to see the drama, or verse with pronounced dramatic qualities, attend the rise of the next poetic school. If, on the other hand, there is to ensue a non-imaginative era, a fallow interval, it will be neither strange nor much to be deplored after the productive affluence of the reign now ending with the century.

A selection from the minstrelsy of Great Britain’s colonies fills out the scheme of the Anthology. The Australian yield is sufficiently meagre, but I have chosen what seems most local and characteristic. Canada is well in the lists with a group of Lyrists whose merit has made their names familiar to readers of our own periodicals, and who feel and healthfully express the sentiment, the atmosphere, of their northern land. I am sure that the space reserved for them in this volume will not seem ill-bestowed. One noteworthy trait of colonial poetry is the frequency with which it takes the ballad form. In a rude way this is seen in the literature of our own colonial period, and along our more recent frontier settlements. By some law akin to that which makes balladry—repeated from mouth to mouth—the natural song of primitive man, of the epic youth of a race or nation, so its form and spirit appear to characterize the verse of a people not primitive, though the colonial pioneers of life and literature in a new land.

To a few exquisite but unnamed quatrains and lyrics by Landor, I have prefixed the felicitous titles given to them by Mr. Aldrich in the little book “Cameos,” of which he and I were the editors a score of years ago. From the early minstrels a compiler’s selections are not hard to make. The panel already has been struck by time itself, which declares that, even in the case of some uneven roisterer, one or two fortunate catches shall preserve his name. More embarrassment comes from the knowledge that lovers of such poets as Tennyson, who made no imperfect poem, and Browning, who wrote none that was meaningless, are slow to understand why certain pieces, for which an editor, doubtless, shares their own regard, are perforce omitted. To surmise, moreover, which is the one lasting note of a new voice or which of all the younger band is to win renown, this is the labor and the work, seeing that as to finish they are all sensitive enough, except now and then one who invites attention by contempt for it. Nothing is more evident than the good craftsmanship of latter-day English and American verse-makers,—a matter of course, after the object-lessons given by their immediate forbears. All in all, the anthologist must rest his cause upon its good intention. In speaking of those who hunt up and reprint the faulty work of authors,—“the imperfect thing or thought” which in mature years they have tried to suppress,—Palgrave justly says in his “Pro Mortuis,”—

  • “Nor has the dead worse foe than he
  • Who rakes these sweepings of the artist’s room,
  • And piles them on his tomb.”
  • Conversely, one perhaps earns some right to count himself the artist’s friend, whose endeavor is to discover and preserve, from the once cherished treasures of even a humble fellow of the craft, at least “one gem of song, defying age.”

    Compact Biographical Notes, upon all the poets represented, follow the main text. Where authorities conflict, and usually, also, in the cases of recent authors, effort has been made to secure the desired information at first hand. For this, and for the general result, my hearty thanks are due to the skill and patience of Miss Vernetta E. Coleman, who has prepared the greater portion of the Notes. The faithfulness of the text at large has been enhanced by the coöperation of the Riverside Press, and this is not the first time when I have been grateful to its Corrector and his assistants for really critical attention given to a work passing through their hands.

    E. C. S.

    NEW YORK, September, 1895.