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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 6: Eastern Fantasies: Costello’s The Lay of the Stork

Extract

In January 1856, Bentley’s Miscellany began a review of Louisa Stuart Costello’s forthcoming volume of poetry, The Lay of the Stork, with an enthusiastic greeting: ‘Welcome as in the cities of the North the return of the storks, welcome to us the reappearance of Louisa Stuart Costello in her singing robes. She has discarded them too long.’1 Accompanying this passage was a footnote, which read: ‘We allude, of course, to doings in verse, not prose. In prose writing – historical, topographical, biographical, and miscellaneous – her labours have been as numerous and agreeable as they are un-laboured’ (p. 515). Charting Costello’s two styles of artistic ‘labours’, this reviewer displays a familiarity with her literary career and enthusiasm for her new work. Costello published her debut volume of poetry The Maid of the Cyprus Isle, and Other Poems at the age of 16, shortly after England’s defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo in 1815. Despite the critical success of her next volume, Songs of a Stranger (1825), she did not pursue the career of a poet for financial reasons. Instead, she established herself as a well-known versatile and prolific prose writer within the Victorian literary market over the following thirty years.2 The Lay of the Stork thus marks Costello’s return to poetry after a long career of prose writing and foregrounds her identity as a ←229 | 230→poetess. It is interesting to note that the review in Bentley’s Miscellany appeared two months before Costello’s Lay and several months ahead of other periodical and newspaper...

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