A Book of Victorian Narrative Verse

Here’s another of CW’s editorial efforts for Oxford University Press. It was published in 1927 by Clarendon Press–which was the name for the Oxford branch, while the London branch was (confusingly) called Oxford University Press. Further confusion is introduced, at least for me, by the fact that this volume was produced in London, not Oxford, and overseen by Humphrey Milford [later Sir Humphrey]). In any case, the important thing for our purposes is that it’s an anthology with selections by CW, so we can see what he thought the most important Victorian narrative poems were, how he abridged them, and how he arranged them. You can find the full work at FadedPage.

The Preface is CW’s distinctive work, with his characteristically surprising assertions. He often puts forward the wildest claims in a bland tone, sometimes accompanied by an observation about how commonplace his views are. Here, he states that “One of the most interesting things about the Victorian age” is how it ranked George Eliot so highly. He does not quarrel with this ranking, even adding to it that she possessed the quality of “nobility.” The high ranking of George Eliot does not surprise me, but his insistence on her “nobility” does–not that she or her work were ignoble, but that it’s not the most intuitive assessment and certainly not the first or second or tenth to come to my mind when I think about Eliot’s work. I’m more likely to come up with descriptors such as insightful, incisive, probing, intricate, accurate, culturally astute, morally courageous, and so on.

How about you? How would you describe the work of George Eliot?

But then again, I’ve never read any of her narrative poetry–nor am I a Victorian. And as a 21st-century American (and a Yankee at that), I am suspicious of hierarchy, monarchy, the peerage, and nobility. However, that’s not the kind of nobility CW has in mind (as Mary Ann Evans was not of “noble blood”): he is evoking a kind of nobility of mind or spirit that he admires in her work and that he believes most endeared her writing to her peers.

The rest of CW’s introduction continues to to put forward one staggering generalization after another: about art, about eras, about poems, about persons. On art, he claims: “All genius, at the moments of its full exercise, becomes symbolical not so much of the age in which it is produced as of the universal life of man.” I detect the influence of his occult studies here in the hint of the Doctrine of Correspondence, or the idea that everything here on earth is a microcosm for some spiritual reality. Specifically, Williams seems to believe in a universal archetype of “the universal life of [humans],” which must follow some set pattern of unfolding. The greatest poets (or other writers and artists) depict this pattern in their greatest works, he suggests. He gives an example of this working-out of a universal pattern in his discussion of Tennyson, stating that “in the Idylls Arthur is presented as the soul.” This reminds me of his own volume of poetry published three years later: Heroes and Kings, in which Blanchfleur’s body is a microcosm for King Arthur’s court. Each of her body parts is represented by one of the other Arthurian characters.

Yes, that’s weird.

The broad brush strokes continue. Comparing eras, he claims: “where the thirteenth century sought to base its stability on an assumed supernatural basis, and the eighteenth within accepted rational limitations of the mind, the Victorian seems rather to have settled its stability upon conduct.” I mean, maybe he’s not wrong, if we’re looking at certain sectors of certain societies (like, literate land-owning white men, probably, #amirite), it seems like that his characterizations of majority discourse are correct. And it’s not as if he’s uncritically accepting Victorian standards; he goes on to point out that they were obsessed with “conduct without any adequate end, duty without interior and eternal significance, morals without metaphysics,” all designed to prop up an outdated notion of chivalry that in turn used its power to uphold monarchy.

Indeed, I am pleasantly surprised to see CW criticizing establishment institutions. When analyzing Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, for example ( a poem he greatly disliked), he asserts: “Tennyson’s King Arthur is an example of nobility become unmanageable, and wavering between nobility and mere pomposity.” I admire his cheek here, even while I myself am too feeble-minded a reader to encapsulate Idylls with anything like his ease. He ties together his overarching concern about the era with his criticisms of this poem: “The weakness therefore of the Victorian age, as of the Idylls, is in its concern with conduct but its failure artistically to suggest an adequate significance in conduct.” In other words, neither Tennyson’s Arthur nor Tennyson himself nor Tennyson’s era had sufficient reasons motivating the kind of behavior they praised and sought to practice or promote. I can’t say whether or not I agree with him; I have a hard time analyzing longer works and whole historical periods–they don’t stick in my head well, and I don’t find it easy to stand afar off and overlook the entire landscape–so I haven’t got the chops to agree or disagree with him.

What do you think? Does Tennyson’s Idylls ultimately present a wavering, out-of-control, pompous Arthur? Does Victorianism put forward a standard of conduct without sufficient moral or metaphysical motivations for such conduct?

Given that CW didn’t like Tennyson’s Idylls, didn’t particularly like Tennyson, and thought pretty poorly of the Victorian era, it might be surprising that he put together an anthology of the era. It was his job, after all, and I doubt that it was his idea. It’s yet another example of the kind of grunt-work he had to do for his day job at the Oxford University Press: putting together anthologies on topics he didn’t particularly fancy. He always committed to doing a good job even on tasks he didn’t like, and this appears to me to be yet another example of that principle.

The controlling idea for this book is that all the poems and selections included should be “concerned chiefly with one thing–telling a story.” Some of the stories don’t have great content, but the quality of the poetry makes up for that, in his opinion. You’re probably interested, then (if you’ve read this far) in what he chose to include. He’s got two poems each by Tennyson, R. Browning, Matthew Arnold, D.G. Rossetti, and William Morris. Then there’s one each by Longfellow, Thackeray, Kingsley, Christina Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, Robert Louis Stevenson, and a couple of dudes I’ve never heard of. No E. B. Browning, which is an unacceptable oversight, considering she wrote the greatest narrative poem in English by a woman up until that date (and maybe since?? let me know if I’m wrong!). The most interesting inclusion, IMO, is George MacDonald, who is known nowadays neither as a poet, nor as a great writer, nor even really as a Victorian in the strict sense. Whether those observations say more about me and the 21st century or more about CW and the 20th, I don’t know.

What do you think? Do you like the selections he included? Who would you have left out? Who would you have put in?

About Sørina Higgins

Sørina Higgins is Editor-in-Chief of the Signum University Press. She holds a Ph.D. in English from Baylor University. Dr. Higgins is currently co-editing a volume on the ethical turn in speculative fiction with Dr. Brenton Dickieson and previously edited an academic essay collection entitled The Inklings and King Arthur. She is also the author of the blog The Oddest Inkling, devoted to a systematic study of Charles Williams’ works. As a creative writer, Sørina has a volume of short stories, A Handful of Hazelnuts, forthcoming from Signum’s own press. Outside of academia, Sørina enjoys practicing yoga, playing with her cats, cooking, baking, podcasting, gardening, dancing, and ranting about the state of the world.
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14 Responses to A Book of Victorian Narrative Verse

  1. mingsem12gmailcom says:

    How about Gerard Manley Hopkins? ( though I think he may not have written narrative verse so he would be out on that score)

    Liked by 1 person

    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      “The Wreck of the Deutschland” is a long(ish) poem, with a story, and had only appeared in print nine years earlier thanks to the OUP (where Williams already worked, then) – and Williams would soon end up editing the second edition, so you’d think there might be a note about why it wasn’t included with a passing plug as to where you could find it – or I would think that: maybe that would be too commercially pushy for the OUP, but I doubt it.


  2. robstroud says:

    Not being a poet, I’m uninclined to rank the talents Williams elected to include. I do, however, concur with your opinion that MacDonald’s presence in the volume is rather suspect.

    After reading “The Yerl O’ Waterydeck,” I can’t discern how Williams could justify its presence. If it is truly representative of praiseworthy Victorian verse… you can count me out.


    • Ah, but Tolkien and Lewis rated George MacDonald very highly, and perhaps that influenced CW’s choice?


    • David Llewellyn Dodds says:

      This is, I think, the only explicit attention by Williams to MacDonald we know of, and interesting for that reason – not least the general note: how many of MacDonald’s novels – examples of narrative prose – did Williams know? He had not met Lewis or Tolkien, yet, so this is independent evidence of recognizing MacDonald – though I suppose he is likely to have known Chesterton’s appreciation for MacDonald.

      I’ve never yet read right through this anthology, but it’s interesting that MacDonald’s poem is followed by two D.G. Rossetti historical ballads, one with a Scottish subject – not what I think of when I think of Rossetti. But all three are interesting as playing with folk poetry (following on from Keats, for example) – as is the now generally famous “Goblin Market” by his sister (I’m not sure how famous in 1927: maybe already very much so – certainly reprinted in 1913 by OUP, I see among Wikipedia’s “Notable Editions”).

      More specifically as to MacDonald’s “Yerl” it is attractive as a folk tale, and one which exhibits quite the opposite of “conduct without any adequate end, duty without interior and eternal significance, morals without metaphysics”. We’d have to ask someone who knows Scots about its qualities as dialect poetry, but I remember an excellent talk by Lorna Fergusson to the Oxford Lewis Society about the fineness of MacDonald’s use of Aberdeenshire dialect in various of his realistic novels.

      So, I’d vote for truly representative of praiseworthy Victorian verse (though how unusual, or merely not so widely known, I can’t say).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I don’t have the volume presently under discussion, but I have a similar one first produced by OUP in 1909 (mine is the 1961 edition), entitled The English Parnassus: An Anthology of Longer Poems. It contains Chaucer, Sackville, Spenser (though oddly, not the Faërie Queen), Marlowe, Ben Jonson, Donne, Marvell, Herrick, Dryden, Pope, Samuel Johnson, Goldsmith, Gray, Collins, Cowper, Burns, Crabbe, Wordsworth (a lot of Wordsworth), Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Tennyson, Robert Browning, Arnold, and Fitzgerald. Not a single woman in the lot.


  4. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    An interesting question, comparing and contrasting this and The English Parnassus: An Anthology of Longer Poems (unfamiliar to me before, but happily scanned in the Internet Archive), is the explicit or possible criteria for inclusion – excerpts or only whole poems, audience, attempting to “bring together […] poems which have attained a high measure of critical approbation” (Parnassus, p. [vii]), or not. Aurora Leigh would have to be excerpted – which would exclude it from Parnassus, unless there were a self-contained excerpt available (p. [iii]) – I’m not sure about C.W.: maybe he would find it hard to excerpt adequately even if more freely? Interesting if curious that the Parnassus editors acknowledge a woman academic, Miss Bentinck-Smith (p. v), while not including, say, “Goblin Market” at least.

    C.W.’s selection is variously interesting for its Arthurian, Northern, Celtic, Persian related tales, and supernatural ones (a Witch, Goblins, a sea-monster – in “Andromeda”).


  5. Pingback: A Book of Victorian Narrative Verse – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

  6. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Tantalizing is the fact that Edward A. Parker selected the contents of A Book of Longer Modern Verse (Clarendon, 1926) with Williams providing the Notes – but I can find no record online of what those contents are! How big a step was it from that, to this, where he selected and introduced as well as annotating? Among the Parnassus scans online I see one from 1923. Were both Parker’s and Williams’s editions meant to complement and supplement it? Parker has a volume of Selections of Modern English Prose and Poetry – published by Macmillan in “Bombay Calcutta Madras London” also in 1926, and an edition of Browning’s Pippa Passes from Macmillan “London” in 1927 which lists him as of “Elphinstone College, Bombay” (both in the Internet Archive). How much are his Book of Longer Modern Verse and this one by Williams largely part of OUP’s work aimed at schools (around the world) as textbooks?


  7. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    While looking up something else, I encountered this – new to me, as is its compiler, but of possible interest in this context: Rupert Sargent Holland, Historic Poems and Ballads (1912):


    Four women are among the authors included: something more likely in an American publication?


  8. David Llewellyn Dodds says:

    Is it (somehow) ‘me’ – or has something happened to fadedpage?


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