In his new anthology, Valentine Cunningham reminds readers of the Victorians' sentimental passion for the "dinky" - toys, children, fairies, even "miniature" moments of domesticity. But dinky is hardly the word to characterise the paradoxical complexity that is Victorian poetry: voluminous in output; generically diverse; technically both derivative and experimental; nostalgic and proto-modernist; cheerily positive and stoically morose; both radical and conservative. Cunningham's text admirably succeeds in conveying this vastness with its competing voices, styles, moods and themes.
The anthology is the most extensive to date, with some 158 named poets (both canonical and popular) together with additional entries ranging from street ballads to keynote essays on the nature of art and the function of poetry. This range ensures its value as a core text for undergraduate and postgraduate courses on Victorian poetry. Users will appreciate its inclusion of complete long poems and sequences such as In Memoriam, Maud, The Wreck of the Deutschland and The Dream of Gerontius . Cunningham also provides an excellent range of Victorian poetesses. Generic variety is a feature of any good anthology of the period. But this anthology is particularly welcome for its diversity of authors: regional and dialect poets, urban sophisticates, working-class writers, the polished "greats", hymn writers, supporters of empire, the Langham Place feminists, even minor poets (such as Digby Dolben) remembered mainly for their connections to major poetic talents.
Cunningham's elegant, cogent introduction gives shape to the volume, explaining its construction of Victorianism. He argues persuasively that certain preoccupations inflect Victorian poetry: a fascination with the nature of the "real" and its place (healthy or otherwise) in art; a concern with the self as it both makes the world and is constructed by it; anxieties about bodily erotics and the conflict between flesh and spirit. For Cunningham, the Christian orientation of Victorian society is particularly important for understanding its imaginative output, and he thus gives more recognition than is usual these days to devotional writing as well as to poems of doubt and even aggressive disbelief. The succinct, sharp biographical and contextual headnotes for each author, detailed lists for further reading, and spare but helpful annotations support a text that will make for informed, stimulating and pleasurable reading for scholars, students and the general enthusiast.
Maureen Moran is professor of English, Brunel University.
The Victorians: An Anthology of Poetry and Poetics. First Edition
Editor - Valentine Cunningham
ISBN - 0 631 19915 2 and 19916 0
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £70.00 and £16.99
Pages - 1,152