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The Crimean War in Victorian Poetry


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 4: Scenes of Suffering: Dobell’s Spasmodic War Poetry


In an 1857 article entitled ‘Little Lessons for Little Poets’ the critic and essayist George Brimley commented on the poetic representation of the Crimea:

generally the newspaper correspondents gave a far more vivid and life-like picture of the battles – far more spirited representations of all ‘the pride, pomp, circumstance of glorious war’ – far more appalling photographs of the misery and suffering of the camp and of the trenches, of the hospital and the field of death.1

Brimley’s critique of Crimean War poetry and his criteria for war representation bespeak the impact of recent technological innovations upon reportage of the conflict abroad, including telegraphy and photography. The phrase ‘the pride, pomp, circumstance of glorious war’, recalling Shakespeare’s Othello, was frequently deployed by commentators on the military campaign.2 It was the traditional role of war poets to rouse the reader’s martial spirits and to celebrate the glory of war, but, according to ←155 | 156→Brimley, this role had been superseded by that of the war correspondent. For him, civilian poets could hardly compete with these correspondents and other military commentators who were reporting from the actual site of battle and portraying the harsh realities of war. His use of the phrases ‘vivid and life-like picture[s]’ and ‘appalling photographs’ served to conjoin the new language with the new media. An overriding emphasis on the accuracy and authenticity of war representation, which only the immediacy of photography seemed able to achieve, is reflected in the little lesson he...

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