The Crimean War in Victorian Poetry
By virtue of the medium of modern reportage, the Crimean War (1854-1856) witnessed the inauguration of the civilian spectatorship of distant suffering, provoking a heated debate over the concept of the war poet and the function of war poetry during moments of national crisis. Confronted with news of soldiers’ hardships and of the distress caused by the government’s mismanagement of war, the so-called armchair poet sought ways of addressing the problem of pain and adversity from a distance and of engaging with the politics of war by composing lines of verse at home.
This is the first book-length study to examine the predicaments and achievements of mid-Victorian war poets. It provides historically nuanced readings of how a diverse group of British poets – ranging from the Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson to the highly acclaimed female poet Louisa Stuart Costello – fought a literary war as they reworked the established traditions of war poetry and experimented with poetic forms in response to news of distant combat.
Table Of Contents
- About the author
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- List of Figures
- Introduction: Reframing the Armchair Poet
- Chapter 1: The Victorian Tyrtaeus
- Chapter 2: The Afterlives of Campbell and ‘The Soldier’s Dream’
- Chapter 3: The People’s War: Challenging the Governing Classes
- Chapter 4: Scenes of Suffering: Dobell’s Spasmodic War Poetry
- Chapter 5: Echoes of War-Cries: Tennyson’s Maud
- Chapter 6: Eastern Fantasies: Costello’s The Lay of the Stork
- Afterword: The Afterlives of Crimean War Poetry
- Series Index
Figure 3. John Flaxman, ‘Hector Chiding Paris’, in The Iliad of Homer, trans. Alexander Pope. With Flaxman’s Designs, 2 vols (London: Ingram, Cooke & Co., 1853), 217. Reproduced from author’s own collection←ix | x→
Figure 7. ‘Royal Patriotic Jug’, designed by George Eyre and manufactured by Samuel Alcock & Co., Hill Pottery, Burslem, 1 January 1855. Reproduced with the permission of the National Army Museum, London
This book began life as a doctoral thesis at the University of York. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my supervisors Matthew Bevis, Trev Broughton and Matthew Campbell, whose advice, criticism, and guidance made it possible for me to conceive and write this book. Any errors that remain are mine alone, and there would certainly have been many more without the help of the following individuals who have read drafts of chapters and offered valuable feedback at different stages of my career: Emma Major, the late Jane Moody, James Williams, Holly Furneaux, Valerie Purton, Lucy Pell-Walpole, Erin Louttit, Sarah Green, Tracy Hayes, Laurel Plapp and Michael Garvey. I would also like to thank the anonymous readers for Peter Lang whose insightful reviews greatly improved this book. For inspirational conversation about Victorian war poetry, I thank Hugh Haughton, Clare Broome Saunders, Marysa Demoor, Florence Boos and Linda Hughes. For access to manuscripts and primary materials, I thank Grace Timmins, doyenne of the Tennyson Research Centre, and the staff of the British Library.
An early version of Chapter 1 was first published as ‘Tyrtaeus and the Civilian Poet of the Crimean War’ in Journal of Victorian Culture, 22.7 (December 2017), 503–20; parts of Chapter 2 first appeared as ‘The Afterlife of Thomas Campbell and “The Soldier’s Dream” in the Crimean War’ in 19: Interdisciplinary Studies in the Long Nineteenth Century, 20 (May 2015); and Chapter 5 is a revised and expanded version of ‘Tennyson’s Echoes of War-Cries in Maud’ in Tennyson Research Bulletin, 10.5 (November 2016), 443–66. I am grateful to the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and to the editors for permission to rework this material here. I am thankful to my former literature teachers at Tunghai and National Taiwan University for their generous support and encouragement.
I am also thankful to my friends and colleagues at National Chung Hsing University (NCHU) for providing a supportive environment in which to finish this book. At NCHU I appreciate the guidance of ←xi | xii→Jiann-Guang Lin, Chu-Chueh Cheng, Shu-Ching Chen, Rose Hsiu-li Juan and Chung-Yi Chu. I gratefully acknowledge the funding received from the Ministry of Science and Technology in Taiwan, which supported research for a project that became Chapter 6 of this book.
Special thanks are due to my research assistant Yen-Hsia Liu for her help during the long months of completing the final version of this book. No words can express my gratitude to my parents Ming-Li Ho and Pi-Chu Tsai for their unwavering love. This book is dedicated to them. My greatest debt is to Trev Broughton, who taught me to be a more careful reader and made me a better scholar.
In ‘Poetry of the War’, an 1855 review of newly published volumes of war poetry in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Edward Bruce Hamley paints a farcical portrait of the civilian poet of the time:
Scenes of the campaign glow and expand in the pictures of an imaginative ‘own correspondent’ writing up to the requirements of an excited public. The poet, catching the enthusiasm, burns to sing of the war. Fancy and invention he need not call on for aid, as those elements of poetry have already done their utmost in the columns of the newspaper he subscribes to. Nothing is wanting but verse; and his eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, glances from The Times to a quire of foolscap, which he presently covers with ballads, sonnets, or some other form of lay, plaintive as the odes of Sappho, or sanguinary as the songs of Tyrtaeus.1
Hamley’s statement that ‘his eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, glances from The Times to a quire of foolscap’ alludes of course to the speech by Theseus in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: ‘The poet’s eye, in a fine frenzy rolling, | Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven’ (V. 1. 12–13).2 The Duke of Athens continues: ‘as imagination bodies forth | The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen | Turns them to shapes, and gives to airy nothing | A local habitation and a name’ ←1 | 2→(V. 1. 14–17). Just as Shakespeare mocks Plato’s theory of the poet’s divine frenzy to create ‘the forms of things unknown’, so Hamley satirizes the poet’s fervent attempts at war poetry. Divine inspiration now comes from ‘the columns of the newspaper’ and the art of poetry writing is reduced to rendering newspaper reports in verse. The ‘foolscap, which he presently covers’ refers to the paper upon which the poet is writing as well as the fact that he is a jester: ‘catching’ the war fever from an ‘imaginative’ correspondent of The Times feeding stories to ‘an excited public’, the poet feels inspired to translate war news into various forms of mimicry.
In deriding Victorian poets as armchair versifiers of war news, Hamley burlesques the function of civilian poetry as well:
Poetry, whose high office is to select and combine in order to exalt, would do for them [British officers] the refining work of time. The squalid scenes of the camp and the work-a-day operations of the siege would vanish from their mental picture; they would become heroes to themselves; each would begin to believe he had seen the gods of Olympus mingling in the fray. (p. 531)
Hamley’s exposition of poetry’s ‘high office’ is a parody of Shelley’s assertion from ‘A Defense of Poetry’: ‘Poetry turns all things to loveliness; it exalts the beauty of that which is most beautiful, and it adds beauty to that which is most deformed.’3 While Shelley celebrates the power of poetry to unite ‘exultation and horror, grief and pleasure, eternity and change’, and to ‘yoke all irreconcilable things’, Hamley insinuates that the representation of the siege by the civilian poet, albeit gratifying the soldier’s sense of heroism, belies or distorts the reality of war such that it jars with the actual experience of war and causes the ‘squalid scenes of the camp and the work-a-day operations of the siege’ to disappear in verse.
However, Hamley’s squib reveals his mistrust, as a soldier-writer, of the processes and products of the armchair poet’s imaginative engagement with war. By the time he joined the Crimean campaign as the adjutant of Colonel Richard Dacres, Hamley had already published his first novel, Lady Lee’s Widowhood (1853). As well as fulfilling his military duties, Hamley wrote ←2 | 3→the review quoted above in his tent, and served as private correspondent for the conservative, pro-war Blackwood’s, which printed his letters serially under the title Story of the Campaign.4 In order to emphasize his authority as a military writer, he advertised his combatant status and proximity to the war zone by inserting the phrase ‘REVIEWED BEFORE SEBASTOPOL’ both under the title and at the end of the article. The unique and fortuitous combination of his literary background, military experience and martial identity enables Hamley to question, with exceptional authority, the truthfulness of the war correspondent’s dispatches and to ridicule the originality of civilian poetry.5 His satirical attack embodies a literary soldier’s critique of civilians who had no actual battle experience but took up the subject of war and treated it as if it were fiction.
Ever since the outbreak of the Crimean conflict, Victorian war poetry has been received unfavourably. This study calls into question Hamley’s caricature of Victorian poets as ill-informed, armchair patriots and civilian poetry as an imitation or literal translation of war reportage. Furthermore, it challenges a mode of literary criticism championed by modernists that appropriates Hamley’s belittling of the armchair poet in order to enshrine the soldier-poets of the First World War at the expense of their predecessors. In a book chapter entitled ‘Rupert Brooke and the War’ (1919), Arthur Waugh snipes at the civilian poets of earlier generations:
The Victorian poets wrote of war as though it were something splendid and ennobling; but as a matter of fact they knew nothing whatever about it. The Georgian poets know everything there is to know about war, and they come back and report it to us an unspeakable horror, maiming and paralysing the very soul of man.6←3 | 4→
Often cited to disparage Victorian war poets, this passage is founded on the epistemological assumption that war can only be comprehended and therefore depicted by those who have direct experience of warfare.7 The Victorian poets ‘knew nothing whatever about it’ in that they had not experienced the horror of the battlefront first-hand, unlike Georgian combatant poets. Waugh’s assumption regarding these poets’ knowledge and depiction of war foregrounds a dichotomy (the former ‘knew nothing’, whereas the latter ‘know everything’) that presupposes the styles of civilian and combatant war poetry (‘splendid’ and ‘ennobling’ versus ‘maiming’ and ‘paralysing’). As Matthew Bevis has pointed out, ‘such oppositions do a disservice to the complexities of both nineteenth-and twentieth-century war poetry, to the former in particular’.8
One consequence of this opposition is the deeply entrenched view that the genre of war poetry is a product of the First World War only. Asked in 1942 why the Second World War had given rise to so little war poetry, Robert Graves replied that ‘war poet’ and ‘war poetry’ were ‘terms first used in World War I and perhaps peculiar to it.’ While conceding that ‘[i]n previous wars there had been patriotic verse and poems written in time of war, and even occasional poems written by soldiers on campaign’, he nonetheless insisted that ‘none of these were war poems in the now accepted sense’.9 By ‘the now accepted sense’, Graves has in mind protest poetry. His comment reflects a veteran war poet’s own valorization of the unique status and experience of the First World War soldier-poet who fought in and depicted trench warfare. This restricted sense of what constitutes a war poet has been widely accepted in both academic and popular discourse and has even entered the consciousness of the British public.10 In ←4 | 5→a recent collection of essays intended to commemorate the centenary of the First World War (2014), Santanu Das cites Graves to foreground the soldier-poet as the dominant conception of the ‘war poet’:
From Anglo-Saxon times to the Boer War, war poetry in English was written largely by civilians and did not have a clearly defined identity; with the extraordinary outpouring between 1914 and 1918, it established itself as a genre and the soldier-poet became a species.11
This standard account of how a select group of combatant poets revolutionized the literary landscape and established war poetry as a genre is contingent upon the modernist reaction against the Victorian precursor, as seen above. If the civilian poets of the nineteenth century did not seem to ‘have a clearly defined identity’, this is partly because the figure of the armchair poet has been overshadowed by the soldier-poet and partly because scholars continue to judge civilian poetry by the literary tastes and aesthetic standards established by literary criticism of First World War poetry.
The elevation of the soldier-poet by Waugh, Graves and Das at the expense of Victorian poets fosters a combatant-centred canon of war poetry, anticipating what James Campbell terms ‘combat gnosticism’, according to which the ideological construction of war experience is secret knowledge available only to combatants, thereby silencing the voices of civilians.12 In an essay addressing the hegemony of this ideology in criticism of First World War poetry (1999), Campbell contends that scholarship has failed to move beyond the ideology of combat experience as truth and simply replicated what ought to have been critiqued. The primary example he gives of a scholarly work enacting and reinforcing the values of this ideology is ←5 | 6→Paul Fussell’s seminal book The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). Campbell’s analysis of the construction of combat ideology by both poets and critics of the First World War offers a way of explaining the critical neglect of Victorian war poetry. Just as Campbell has shown that combat ideology renders male combatant poets’ representations of their experience hegemonic, silencing the voices of female civilians, so the canon of First World War poetry devalues and marginalizes those of civilian poets during the Crimean War.
Hamley’s critique of the civilian poet, discussed above, shows that a mid-Victorian version of combat ideology was at work shaping the interpretation of civilian poetry. As early as 1841, Thomas Carlyle, in his lecture on ‘Hero as Poet’, had discredited the armchair poet, deeming the warrior identity a prerequisite for the poet’s capacity to ‘sing the Heroic warrior’: ‘[t]he Poet who could merely sit on a chair, and compose stanzas, would never make a stanza worth much. He could not sing the Heroic warrior, unless he himself were at least a Heroic warrior too.’13 With the modernist critique in mind, it may come as a surprise that most contemporaneous reviews of Crimean War poetry – published in periodicals and newspapers between 1854 and1857 – were just as censorious of the armchair poet as the modernists. Indeed, they had little praise for their fellow poets and readily aligned with Hamley’s military perspective or favoured Carlyle’s model of the warrior poet in order to disparage their works. Ironically, these critics took issue with what they considered to be the civilian poet’s outdated and diluted experience of war and the resulting poetry precisely because their own conceptions of the role and genre had been shaped by earlier poetic theories or traditions of war poetry. These, in turn, were being updated and contested by modern forms of war reportage, especially telegraphic dispatches and photography. The civilian poet of the Crimean War was thus tasked with writing poetry in a complex cultural and literary milieu in which ‘war poet’ and ‘war poetry’ were both hotly contested and shifting concepts.
- XII, 304
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- Publication date
- 2021 (March)
- The Crimean War The Armchair Poet Victorian War Poetry
- Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XII, 304 pp., 14 fig. b/w.