The Verse Novel in English
Origins, Growth and Expansion
Beginning with Pushkin, who was the first to coin the term «verse novel» to describe his masterpiece Eugene Onegin, the first section of this study considers a number of nineteenth-century Romantic and Victorian verse narratives, as well as some mid-twentieth-century experimental works, which can be seen to have contributed to the rise of the verse novel. The second, much longer, section concentrates on the period 1980-2010, which witnessed the full fruition of the verse novel as a multicultural fictional genre. A selection of some two dozen verse novels from this period, notably those by Anthony Burgess, Anne Carson, Glyn Maxwell, Les Murray, Vikram Seth and Derek Walcott, are discussed in terms of both their novelistic and their prosodic merits.
Table Of Contents
- About the author(s)/editor(s)
- About the book
- This eBook can be cited
- Chapter 1: Origins of a genre: Questions of terminology
- Poetry and prose
- Verse and poetry
- Prose narrative and the novel
- Verse narrative
- Romance and novel
- The verse novel
- Verse novelists on the novel and verse
- Novelist-poets and poet-novelists
- Part I: Growth of a genre
- Chapter 2: European Romantic masterworks
- Lord Byron: Don Juan (1819–1824)
- Alexander Pushkin: Eugene Onegin (1823–1831, first published in its entirety in 1833)
- Adam Mickiewicz: Pan Tadeusz (1834)
- Chapter 3: Victorian verse novels and novellas
- Elizabeth Barrett Browning: Aurora Leigh (1856–1857)
- Robert Browning: The Ring and the Book (1868–1869)
- Arthur Clough: Amours de Voyage (1858)
- George Meredith: Modern Love (1862)
- Chapter 4: Modernist experimentation
- David Jones: In Parenthesis (1937)
- William Carlos Williams: Paterson (1946–1958)
- Part II: Expansion of a genre: A survey of contemporary works, 1980–2010
- Chapter 5: Epic, science fiction and myth
- Frederick Turner: The New World (1985)
- John Barnie: Ice (2001)
- Derek Walcott: Omeros (1990)
- Anne Carson: Autobiography of Red (1998)
- Chapter 6: Historical and picaresque narratives
- Dorothy Porter: Akhenaten (1992)
- David Mason: Ludlow (2007)
- Glyn Maxwell: The Sugar Mile (2005)
- Fred D’Aguiar: Bill of Rights (1998) and Bloodlines (2000)
- George Elliott Clarke: Whylah Falls (1990)
- Craig Raine: History: The Home Movie (1994)
- Les Murray: Fredy Neptune (1998)
- Anthony Burgess: Byrne (1995)
- Brad Leithauser: Darlington’s Fall (2002)
- Chapter 7: Social issues, fantasy and crime
- Les Murray: The Boys Who Stole the Funeral (1980)
- Vikram Seth: The Golden Gate (1986)
- Glyn Maxwell: Time’s Fool (2000)
- Toby Barlow: Sharp Teeth (2007)
- H.R.F. Keating: Jack, the Lady Killer (1999)
- Dorothy Porter: The Monkey’s Mask (1994)
- Chapter 8: Amatory and epistolary strains
- Marilyn Hacker: Love, Death and the Changing of the Seasons (1986)
- Anne Carson: The Beauty of the Husband (2001)
- James Baker Hall: Praeder’s Letters (2002)
- Chapter 9: Autobiography and self-construction
- Douglas Oliver: An Island That is All the World (1990)
- Derek Walcott: The Prodigal (2004)
- Bernardine Evaristo: Lara (2009)
- A note on versification
- Rhyme patterns
- Blank verse and free verse
- Stanza forms
- Growth of a genre
- Contemporary verse novels in English, 1980–2010
- The verse novel in France
- General studies of the verse novel
- Individual works
Sometimes people still write novels in verse, but they are not very popular.
— ANTHONY BURGESS1
This study proposes to give an account of the rise and spread of a literary hybrid, the verse novel, by tracing its development from its origins in narrative poetry, through the exploratory works of nineteenth-century and Modernist writers, to the full fruition of a multicultural fictional genre in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.
Surprisingly, in view of the number of verse novels that have been published since 1980, very little has been written about this subject and no major critical overview has, by 2017, appeared (see the first section of the Bibliography); nor is there an entry for ‘verse novel’ in the most recent, seventh, edition of The Oxford Companion to English Literature.
The present offering should, therefore, be viewed as an introductory study or reader’s guide, preparing the way for more detailed treatment of certain periods, categories, authors or works. For the most part, the study takes the form of a series of short analyses devoted to individual authors and works, grouped generically and/or chronologically.
The initial inspiration for this inquiry was the study of Pushkin’s masterpiece, Eugene Onegin (1823–31), the first work to be subtitled ‘a novel in verse’. Pushkin himself was influenced by reading Byron’s verse tales and by the almost contemporaneous Don Juan (1819–24), a work which, along with another European epic verse narrative, Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz (1834), could also be described as a ‘novel in verse’, although neither work is specifically labelled as such. Later in the century, the evolution of what would, more than a hundred years on, become a specifically English literary phenomenon can be found in the writings of major Victorian poets; whether in the lengthy narrative poems of Elizabeth Barrett Browning (Aurora Leigh, 1857) and Robert Browning (The Ring and the Book, 1868–9), ← 1 | 2 → or in the shorter verse novellas of Arthur Clough (Amours de Voyage, 1858) or George Meredith (Modern Love, 1862).
All the above literary productions, as well as one late eighteenth-century ‘poetical novel’ in verse, Anna Seward’s Louisa (1784), coincide with the flowering of the novel in European literature. As verse novels, or novels in verse, they share with prose fiction such defining criteria as storyline, setting, characterization, dialogue, narrative structure and viewpoint. Obviously, where they differ is in the application of a rhyming or blank verse framework to such novelistic criteria. The resulting hybrid, in which the fusion of form and content clearly differs from that of traditional prose fiction, may well require of the reader a modified reading strategy.
I have taken the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as my starting point for the emergence of the verse novel in the belief that one can only really talk of the ‘verse novel’ in relation to the development of the novel itself as a form of prose fiction, a development that is generally considered to have begun in the late seventeenth century at the earliest. Used more loosely, the term ‘novel’ could be applied to much earlier literary productions, as Margaret Doody’s magisterial study, The True Story of the Novel demonstrates by tracing this variety of prose fiction back to Classical Antiquity.2 In which case the earliest known verse narratives in European culture, notably Homer’s epic poems, could also be qualified as ‘verse novels’. Clearly, in the light of the various subtitles used by many of the verse novelists in this study (see the corpus), some preliminary discussion of generic definitions and classes will be necessary in order, not only to justify the timescale for the development of this literary genre, but also to account for the choice of works included.
While the selection of works for the nineteenth century poses few problems – although we may wonder, for example, to what extent Wordsworth’s The Prelude or Tennyson’s Maud are verse novels – the dilemma facing the researcher who wishes to give some idea of the contemporary verse novel is less one of generic definition than one of selecting a representative sample of works from the relatively large number available. An initial internet trawl for verse novels for the period 1980–2010 provides more than 120 works, about one third of which are intended for adolescent readership. Two highly praised examples – by Virginia Euwer Wolff and Juan Felipe Herrera – are ← 2 | 3 → listed in the corpus, but the proliferation of the free-verse novel in children’s and young people’s literature surely deserves a full-length study of its own. In all, the number of works selected for discussion has been limited to some two dozen key works, selected on the grounds of literary merit or repute. Of course, there are bound to be significant omissions, but with such an extensive range of works, the selection needed to be feasibly circumscribed. The principal aim of this selection process has been to provide a cross-section that displays the exceptional range and variety of the contemporary verse novel and which facilitates comparisons within each division. But, although the works in the contemporary corpus have been classified under five clearly recognizable headings – epic, historical, social, amatory and autobiographical – they could, of course, be reorganized along different lines: chronologically, prosodically, or thematically so as to emphasize such categories, for example, as the African diaspora verse novel or the lesbian verse novel.3
It should be added that the relatively cursory treatment of texts will of necessity entail the omission of considerable detail regarding the setting, storyline and characterization in verse novels with which the reader may not be familiar, but with which, one hopes, they will wish to become more so.
Whatever system of classification is applied to this corpus of late twentieth-century and early twenty-first-century verse novels, we can ascertain the following salient features:
(1) the multicultural flavour of the genre (verse novels by American, Australian, Canadian, Caribbean, English and Welsh writers, as well as by those of Guyanese, Indian, Mexican or Nigerian descent);
(2) the variety of novelistic genres exploited, most of which can be traced back to their nineteenth-century predecessors (epic, science fiction, historical, picaresque, thriller, social problem, psychological, epistolary, autobiographical);
(3) the varied generic labels given by authors to their works (‘a novel in verse’, ‘a verse novel’, ‘a tale in verse’, ‘a novel’, ‘an epic poem’, ‘a fictional essay’);
(4) the range of rhyming and blank verse patterns (terza rima, ottava rima, sonnet sequences, Onegin stanzas, free-standing poem medleys), as well as the varied use of free verse in several of the works chosen; ← 3 | 4 →
(5) the respective numbers of poets, poet/novelists, novelists and playwrights who have adopted the genre. Not surprisingly, it appeals most to those who are considered primarily as poets;
(6) the seeming lack of parity in terms of male and female authors; but if the majority of authors are men, in the realm of verse novels for young readers the contrary is the case.4
This study is essentially devoted to the development of the verse novel in English. However, the growth of the verse novel is the result of an on-going two-way process of transformation. Narrative poetry has fed into the novel, and the novel in turn has broadened the scope of poetry. For reasons of space, the closely associated topic of poetry in the novel is not dealt with here and merits a separate study. Novelists, in particular those who write about poets and poetry have, for different purposes and in varied ways, integrated a great deal of verse into their works in the form of inserted poems, epigraph or epilogue poems, or juxtapositions of poetry and prose; such collage effects sometimes leading to the creation of unclassifiable literary compounds.5
Also not dealt with in this study is the contemporary verse novel in other languages. The point was made above that the verse novel is a curiously Anglophone phenomenon. No similar verse novel tradition typifies other literatures. In France, a dozen verse novels have appeared sporadically since the publication of Raymond Roussel’s La Doublure (1897), a novel written in Classical alexandrines; the most recent being a biography written in free verse (David Foenkinos’s Charlotte, 2014). Raymond Queneau’s Chêne et chien (1937), the first work in French to be subtitled ‘roman en vers’, gave rise to a small number of autobiographical verse novels which may be said to constitute the only significant continental contribution to the genre. However, unlike the inestimable impact of Pushkin on the rise of the verse novel,6 these French works have had no influence at all on the English literary tradition. It is a topic, though, which, like those of poetry in the novel and of verse novels for young readers, is in need of separate comprehensive coverage.7 In the present study, I am solely concerned with the origins of the verse novel in English; with works by early nineteenth-century, Victorian and Modernist writers that shed light on ← 4 | 5 → its development; and with the revival and rapid spread of the genre as from the 1980s.
Following the thirty-year period of peak production covered here, the number of verse novels being published since 2010 seems to be on the wane. This may be due to the fact that such literary hybrids require a shift in reading habits, especially for those – the vast majority – who prefer their novels in prose. Yet the abiding appeal of the verse novel can be attributed to many factors, not least of which are its ability to make poetry attractive to a wider reading public and its capacity for returning the novel to its early verse narrative sources. In the conclusion to her 2003 article, in which she reviewed seven contemporary verse novels, Catherine Addison said of the genre that:
It seems to be a genre with a potential to remake poetry as a widely read and popular literary form once more. By moving into narrative, poetry in this genre breaks out of the potentially solipsistic confessional mode into which much lyric poetry fell during the later twentieth century. But the novel, too, is given new aesthetic life by this hybrid, whose words, lines, perhaps stanzas, all call attention to form in a way that prose does not normally do.8
It is to be hoped that the necessary attention given to form required of the verse-novel reader will be an adjunct, rather than an impediment, to enjoyment. However, for those less familiar with English prosody and the terminology used in this study to describe it, a guide to versification is provided as an appendix.
1 Anthony Burgess, English Literature: A Survey for Students, Harlow, Longman, 1974; p. 8. Burgess’s verse novel, Byrne, which will be examined in Chapter 6, was published posthumously in 1995. ← 5 | 6 →
2 Margaret Doody, The True Story of the Novel, London, HarperCollins, 1997. While Doody is certainly right to challenge the long-standing view, most notably expounded in Ian Watt’s 1957 authoritative The Rise of Novel, that the novel was largely an eighteenth-century English creation, her own claim for the existence of novels in Classical Antiquity may be stretching the subcategories of narrative prose fiction too far.
3 Regarding my choice of generic/sub-generic groupings for these contemporary works, I would echo what Stefanie Markovits has to say in general about categorizing certain works of Victorian fiction as ‘verse novels’: ‘It matters less that any particular reader agrees that a specific text I consider here belongs to a “grouping” designated by the term verse-novel than that I am able to convince said reader that there are benefits to considering the given text in the context of this grouping’. The Victorian Verse-Novel: Aspiring to Life, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2017, ‘Introduction’, pp. 2–3.
4 The most frequently mentioned authors in this field being Sharon Creech, Margarita Engle, Karen Hesse, Ellen Hopkins, Sonya Sones, and Virginia Euwer Wolff.
5 Although this monograph is self-standing, it complements my earlier study of the interrelations of poetry and prose fiction, Poetry in the Novel: Selected Case Studies (Oxford, Peter Lang, 2018).
6 Curiously, Eugene Onegin did not give rise to a verse novel tradition in Russia; possibly because Pushkin is considered by his compatriots to be inimitable.
7 Several interesting points for comparison emerge from the study of this relatively small corpus of French verse novels:
(1) Although the works are separated by decades, there are noticeable links between the writers which are related to two major literary movements in France: Surrealism and OuLiPo (Ouvroir de Littérature Potentielle).
(2) The works can be divided into two main categories: those by Roussel, Reverdy, Audiberti, Bellefroid, Jouet, Prigent and Foenkinos, representative of different prose fictional genres (romance, mystery, epic, burlesque, biography); and those by Queneau, Aragon, Perros and Cliff, which are all autobiographical. Moreover, three of the latter works (Aragon is the exception) have in common a penchant for intense self-analysis, accompanied, as the case may be, either by frank sexual revelations or by philosophical digressiveness. Whether or not these are peculiarly French traits, they are certainly not features of the contemporary autobiographical verse novels in English dealt with in Chapter 9. The principal concern of these verse autobiographers is with tracing their roots, a theme that distinguishes them from their French counterparts and situates them firmly in the multicultural context of the contemporary verse novel in English. ← 6 | 7 →
(3) The works display a striking mixture of innovation and convention: on the one hand the experimentation in typographical layout and punctuation (or lack of it), and the application of verse to a wide range of fictional genres; on the other hand, the recourse to rhyming verse for the majority of these works, whether in the guise of a single verse format or else as a collection of poems in a variety of patterns. Such a mixture is, as we shall see, also characteristic of the contemporary verse novel in English.
8 Catherine Addison, ‘The Contemporary Verse Novel: An Explosion of Poetic Narrative’; in Alternation 10:1 (2003), p. 323.
Origins of a genre: Questions of terminology
The distinction between prose as the medium of narrative fiction, and verse – rhyme and rhythm – as the medium of poetry is a distinction valid only in a traditional genre context.
- VI, 342
- ISBN (PDF)
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- Publication date
- 2018 (December)
- verse novel narrative poem literary hybrid poet-novelist novelist-poet versification rhyming verse blank verse free verse poetry literary genre cross-generic Victorian Modernist Multicultural Romantic prose fiction prosody
- Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2018. VI, 342 pp.