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The Crimean War in Victorian Poetry

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Tai-Chun Ho

Cast in the shadow of the soldier-poets of the First World War, Victorian war poets have often been disparaged as «armchair patriots» glorifying military action in an unthinking fashion. Challenging this long-standing assumption, The Crimean War in Victorian Poetry considers the evolution of the figure of the homefront poet and explores the daunting task of representing war from a civilian perspective.

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.

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Introduction: Reframing the Armchair Poet

Extract

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...

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