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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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Chapter 1: The Victorian Tyrtaeus

Extract

On 18 December 1854, in a letter to his friend Thomas Hughes, the novelist and clergyman Charles Kingsley lamented the futility of composing war poetry at home:

As for a ballad – oh! my dear lad, there is no use fiddling while Rome is burning. I have nothing to sing about those glorious fellows, except ‘God save the Queen and them.’ I tell you the whole thing stuns me, so I cannot sit down to make fiddle rhyme with diddle about it – or blundered with hundred, like Alfred Tennyson. He is no Tyrtaeus.1

Disdaining any attempt to write a ballad as ‘fiddling while Rome is burning’, thus recalling the Emperor Nero’s proverbial indifference to human suffering and, by implication, the inefficacy of civilian poetry during the national crisis, Kingsley declares that he has ‘nothing to sing about those glorious fellows’ and that he ‘cannot sit down to make fiddle rhyme with diddle about’ the Crimean campaign. In order to dismiss those who have done so and Tennyson’s recently published work ‘The Charge of the Light Brigade’, he invokes the figure of Tyrtaeus, the Greek martial poet of the seventh century bc, to suggest that the duties of the war poet should consist less in the artistic labour of rhyme than in actual physical participation in the conflict. Whereas the legendary Tyrtaeus fought and sang war songs that were instrumental to the Spartan army’s defeat of their enemy, Tennyson wrote ‘The Charge’ from his Farringford house on the...

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