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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 5: Echoes of War-Cries: Tennyson’s Maud

Extract

On 28 October 1854, the Illustrated London News carried an article in the ‘Town and Table Talk, on Literature, Art, etc’ section concerning Tennyson’s latest offering of war poetry:

The Poet Laureate … has, it is said, put on his singing robes and wreath of laurel, and is busy in verse with the Battle of the Alma … We shall see what the honours of the bays … will do for Mr. Tennyson, in the matter of the glorious Battle of ‘the Alma.’1

Like so many of his fellow poets, Tennyson was inspired by England’s first major victory in the Crimea to compose lines of verse. Hallam Tennyson recorded: ‘The excitement of the Crimean War was intense. On 10th October the papers were full of the particulars of the battle of the Alma.’2 The news of the Laureate’s new project would have piqued the reader’s interest. At this point, the battle of Alma had already elicited an outpouring of poetical responses, including Dinah Maria Craik’s ‘By the Alma River’, first published on the same page of the columns that announced the news of the Laureate’s new poetic venture.3 ‘We shall see’ underlines the commentator’ desire to find out whether Tennyson’s new work would live up to his reputation. As it turned out, Tennyson only penned the first stanza of the poem entitled ‘The Alma River’, which was eventually ←195 | 196→completed and set to music by Emily Tennyson.4 Patrick Waddington has suggested that ‘it was ideological hesitation as much...

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