[Thanks to James Heffernan, founder and editor-in-chief of Review 19 for sharing this review with readers of the Victorian Web. — Katherine Miller Weber]


Illuminated initial T he title of Valentine Cunningham's new book inevitably recalls that of Isobel Armstrong's magisterial Victorian Poetry: Poetry, Poetics and Politics (1993). Like Armstrong's, Cunningham's study is enormous—over five hundred pages—and offers an extraordinarily knowledgeable and wide-ranging survey. But there, already, the similarity ends. Cunningham must surely have had Armstrong's work in mind, but if so he has used it mainly as a point of departure, since his own study is built along very different lines. Armstrong's book is sedulous and systematic; it moves through the Victorian period chronologically, for the most part, tracing major shifts in poetic practice and putting them into historical and political context. Cunningham, by contrast, is far more free-wheeling. He does not subdivide the period at all: each chapter addresses the whole of Victorian poetry under a different formal or thematic rubric (e.g., profusion, repetition, sound, the body, melancholy). He largely eschews contextualization, except of an anecdotal variety—as his subtitle's substitution of "Poets" for Armstrong's "Politics" suggests. And in keeping with the discursive, free-associative nature of his approach, his tone is distinctively jocular, arch, even garrulous. The result is oddly mixed. This is an extremely impressive and valuable book, with much to offer. It is also incredibly frustrating, and seems at times to be trying actively to undermine its own efforts.

The opening sentence of the Preface sets the pattern for the whole volume: "This critical-historical account of Victorian poetry attempts to give some sense—to make some sense—of the productions of the most aweingly productive period of poetry there's ever been, in any language" (vi). Prefaces, of course, often make bold claims, which are then defended or qualified later in the book. In this case, however, the opening sentence is entirely representative of what follows. Cunningham often makes sweeping statements and then, rather than substantiate them, either simply repeats or, as here, expands them: the Victorian period of British poetry was the most productive "there's ever been, in any language." The colloquial use of a contraction ("there's") is likewise characteristic. Such cavalier claims and such a chatty tone have significant drawbacks, to which I return below. On the other hand, they also contribute to the book's greatest strength—namely, its readability. It is by no means a reference volume, nor is it intended only for fellow-specialists in the field. Anyone interested in Victorian poetry—an undergraduate who has taken a single course in the subject, or a non-academic reader who simply enjoys Gerard Manley Hopkins and Christina Rossetti—will find this book entirely accessible and (even more notably) truly pleasurable to read. Cunningham's enthusiasm for his subject is infectious. I cannot remember the last time I encountered a critical book that so vibrantly revealed, on every page, the author's love for his material. The sheer gusto with which Cunningham addresses poem after poem works, far better than any critical argument could, to convince the reader of the value of Victorian poetry.

Nor is Cunningham merely an enthusiast. The book teems with information about the poems and poets it discusses: Cunningham is continually comparing different published (and unpublished) versions of a poem, quoting from obscure reviews, producing yet another apt anecdote culled from someone's diary. Likewise the book pullulates with characters, major and minor, among whom Cunningham strikes a judicious balance. While devoting most of his attention to the dozen or so most important Victorian poets, he introduces us as well to scores of more minor figures, each interesting in his or her own right. (His analysis of a poem by the proto-Hopkinsian Theo Marzials [89-90], for instance, makes you want to run to the library to find more.) Even when he is treating the major poets, Cunningham does not restrict himself to the anthology pieces but ranges all over their oeuvre, including frequent citations from the farthest reaches of Robert Browning's seldom-read late poems. This range of reference is in itself revelatory. Some of the book's most fascinating pages draw connections across the whole of Victorian poetry simply by listing all of the different poems that share a certain distinctive feature: a speaker standing by the seaside; a dark-haired heroine. "Victorian poetry is not just deictic," Cunningham writes, "it's omni-deictic" (5), and the same could be said of his book.

The book also boasts fine close readings. Quite a few of them are similarly deictic—happy just to point out features of interest: "how Tennyson's lines ring and jingle and throb with the sounds of the conflict they describe! What a noise of tramping and grinding!" (79). Others, however, are far more detailed and complex—as for example the brilliant analysis of rhyme in Oscar Wilde's "The Ballad of Reading Gaol" (119), or of the word "well" in the opening stanza of Algernon Charles Swinburne's "The Leper" (279). Cunningham has a wonderful ear, and the book is dotted with insightful readings of poems both familiar and unfamiliar. Nor does he limit himself to individual poems. One of the best sections in the book (236-241) examines a range of John Addington Symonds's essays and lyrics. It moves expertly from Symonds's ambivalent sense of his own sexuality, to his descriptions of ambivalently "terraqueous" Venice, to his appreciation of how different shades of blue fade imperceptibly into each other. Cunningham's account of Symonds's preoccupation with these different types of boundary-blurring exemplifies what his book does best. Rather than presenting a critical argument, it offers a fluid and deeply perceptive drawing-together of different elements.

Given all this—given his obvious expertise, and the riches his book has to offer—Cunningham has earned certain rights, prerogatives that the reader might not grant if, for instance, this were a first book. Thus he can make broad claims about Victorian poetry without being expected to hedge each one round with authorities and references to all the other critics who have addressed the same issue. He also has every right to indulge his mannerisms of style, which are many. But throughout the book Cunningham arrogates rights that he has not earned. He takes liberties which, at their most serious, verge upon irresponsibility and threaten to compromise the value of his work.

In the first place, it is littered with errors. These range from minor editorial oversights—dozens of mistakes involving punctuation (parentheses seem to have posed a particular problem) or transposed words—to more serious errors of misquotation and misinformation. Each in itself would be venial; but taken together, and aggravated by a more general sense of carelessness that characterizes the whole volume, they become significant. Cunningham's tone is consistently informal, which is part of the appeal of his book; but there are times when informality devolves into formlessness, as if the reader were being presented with an uncorrected first draft. Take a parenthesized sentence from early in the book (23):

(And it's perhaps not too fanciful hereabouts to think of the poetico-paedagogical syndrome Auden is arrested by as it impinges on the arguments and case of the Reverend John Conington and his circle, he the Corpus Christi College, Oxford, Professor of Latin who strongly defended the Public School and University practice of classical verse composition as being precisely a most helpful initiation into poeticity—in his essay on 'A Liberal Education', published in his Miscellaneous Writings, edited (of course) by his lifelong chum John Addington Symonds, the Balliol classicist and poet, and fellow 'Arcadian', that is 'paiderast', or classically-inspired boy-lover, as Symonds has it; he Symonds for whom the poetic is indeed what got dinned in at Public Schools and was practised in dormitory masturbation groups, as well as, in Symonds's case, in the arms of handsome young Viennese gondoliers and other 'strong young men of the lower-classes', as EM Forster would later put it.)

This is an extreme example, but it is scarcely the most egregious in the book. What is so frustrating is that the information given here, which is perfectly interesting, could easily be converted to useful form if the run-on sentence were simply divided into three or four. But the same faulty judgment that let this stand as a single sentence also permitted the mannered style and rebarbatively knowing tone of the whole passage. While "he the ... Professor" might be needed to distinguish Conington from his circle, "he Symonds" just sounds pretentious. And it is difficult to know to whom the infra-parenthetical "(of course)" could possibly be addressed. All of which makes the reader less likely to look with indulgence on the gaffe of "Viennese" gondoliers.

This is not an isolated instance. A couple of pages earlier (21), Cunningham quotes Yopie Prins on Swinburne's "metrical virtuosity"—but he misprints her first name as "Yoppie" (as he does throughout the book). Two sentences later he offers a couplet of Swinburne's as an example of this virtuosity, but misquotes the second line, with the result that it does not actually scan correctly. Three sentences after that, he says that Swinburne's couplet is written in hexameters, because the "English staple of iambic pentameters" had become "tired-out"; but in fact the lines he quotes are iambic pentameters. The first mistake, about Prins's name, is mere sloppiness. The second, the misquotation of Swinburne, seems understandable: the correct line is "I'll flog you—flog you—flog, flog, flog, flog, flog you," and Cunningham has accidentally dropped a single "flog." But again the error comes to seem more significant when Cunningham goes on to make similar mistakes; he later misquotes Thomas Hood (116), Robert Browning (141, 489), James Thomson (278), Elizabeth Barrett Browning (292, 428), Dante Gabriel Rossetti (300), Alfred Tennyson (325, 353, 374), and Matthew Arnold (327). The misquotations are generally minor, usually involving a single word, but each additional mistake shakes the reader's trust.

The same is true of the more substantive mistake about scansion. Once again, the error is presumably due to inattention rather than ignorance; but the book's many similar errors cumulatively damage Cunningham's credibility. When referring to literature outside his period, Cunningham does not seem to double-check his sources. Thus in the first chapter he says that Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse is set in Cornwall, rather than in Scotland (14). He mistakenly attributes a line from Keats's "Isabella" to his "Bright Star" sonnet, then a few pages later assigns a phrase to Keats's "The Eve of St. Agnes" that does not appear in the poem (263, 279). He refers to "Catullus's famous 'lente, lente,'" a phrase which is not in Catullus (301), and garbles quotations from Ecclesiastes and from Persius (380, 454). More troublingly, he gives the name of Lytton Strachey's masterwork as The Great Victorians, rather than Eminent Victorians (340), and makes similar errors even when dealing with the eminent Victorians themselves: there are twenty-eight sonnets, not twenty-four, in Christina Rossetti's "Later Life" (152); Tennyson's Idylls of the King should not have a "The" at the beginning of the title (261, 446); Jane Morris is not the model, as Cunningham claims (300), for the central figure in Dante Gabriel Rossetti's painting The Blessed Damozel (though she does appear in the background).

These errors (there are many others) are symptomatic of a pervasive slackness. In an early footnote Cunningham writes that he will quote Tennyson's poetry from the 1969 Christopher Ricks edition—even though he recognizes that Ricks's second edition (1987) supersedes the first (41). This is simply baffling. The effort required to check his quotations in the up-to-date edition would surely not have been much greater than the effort involved in writing the footnote—and without the disadvantage of so clearly conveying a disdain for accuracy. Cunningham also disdains standard practice in the names he uses for certain figures. Most notably, he likes to call Christina G. Rossetti by the nickname "Christina G." To be clear: it is common for critics, when discussing pairs of figures who share a surname (the Shelleys, the Brownings, the Rossettis), to refer to them by first name in order to distinguish them; but that is not the case here. Even when there is no chance of confusion between Christina Rossetti and her brother Dante Gabriel, Cunningham simply chooses to alternate between "Rossetti" and his own private moniker, and sometimes he calls her "Miss Rossetti" (e.g., 110) or, with even greater preciousness, "Ms Rossetti" (128). Nor is this the only example. Having noted that Edward Burne-Jones was known at Oxford as "Ted," he goes on to call him Ted Burne-Jones thereafter (e.g., 242). Jane Morris throughout is "Janey," and John W. Cross, George Eliot's husband and biographer, is "Johnny" (352-3). If these liberties are intended to put the reader at ease by making the eminent Victorians seem more accessible, they have backfired. The sense they give instead is of an exclusive club to which the author has, or claims to have, privileged access.

The same familiarity slips out occasionally in Cunningham's references to other critics. The opening page of chapter 1 refers to the editor of the Penguin Book of Victorian Verse as "Danny Karlin," even though Karlin has never published under any name but "Daniel"; later Cunningham refers to J. B. Bullen as "Barry" (242). These are just unconscious lapses and would not be worth noticing, except that they form part of a wider and more troubling pattern in Cunningham's treatment of other critics. He does not often refer to them in the body of the text (since this book is not—and makes no claims to be—a critical intervention, but a literary survey); but the text is peppered with footnotes referring to a wide range of secondary sources. Often these notes are helpful and informative, and to some extent they follow common practice in referring to the "best book" or "most useful article" on a topic of critical debate--as Cunningham does in a note on the dramatic monologue (194). But his evaluations are almost always superfluous—he simply takes it upon himself to pass summary judgment on the works he mentions. Even when his remarks are complimentary, there is something presumptuous in his noting, for instance, that such and such a critic has produced "a rather astute chapter" (339).

Often, moreover, he will bring up a book or article merely to disparage it. One footnote summarizes an article that is at best tangentially related to the subject at hand, only to be able to conclude, "Another example of deconstructionist critics' problems with the religious subject" (192). Elsewhere he interrupts what he is saying to complain, like Francis Jeffrey, that a certain critic's "notion" just "won't do" (248). This parenthetical dismissal is wholly gratuitous; Cunningham is not combatively engaging with the critic's argument in order to mount a counter-argument—which would be fair enough—but quibbling over a single point he dislikes. Worst of all, to my mind, are his occasional back-handed pats of semi-approval. One critic "tries, with some success," to make her argument; another "makes (almost) proper play ... in a Freudain [sic] / Lacanian / Derrideanized way" of his subject; another has produced a "sometimes acute book" (172, 118, 323). Again, these evaluations are purely incidental. Cunningham is not reckoning with any of these critics in the body of his text; they have been introduced into the footnotes merely to be condescended to.

This high-handed manner becomes actively counter-effective when it shades into critical irresponsibility. In concluding an otherwise fine section on representations of madness in Victorian poetry, Cunningham refers to Tennyson and John Clare as "the mad gent and the mad peasant [with] their shared condition" (212). This is deeply misleading: Clare's insanity—his decades as "a certified lunatic, delusively prone to thinking he was ... the Duke of Wellington with his head shot off" (as Cunningham describes it earlier in the same paragraph)—was not a condition he "shared" with Tennyson, who suffered from occasional bouts of depression. Earlier in the same chapter, Cunningham is more careful in describing Tennyson's decision to seek treatment for depression (which was the reason he spent time at the same hospital as Clare), so perhaps the reader is meant to understand that this sentence is not to be taken literally. But in that case why include it? A reader could be excused for finishing the book with the distinct impression that Tennyson was institutionalized as a madman.

Even more disturbingly, a reader who had no other source of information would be certain to leave the book with the conviction that Lewis Carroll was a practicing pedophile. Cunningham tosses around the word "paedophilia" with alarming insouciance: describing the sixteen-year age gap between the life-long lovers Katherine Bradley and Edith Cooper, who published poetry together under the name Michael Field, he wonders parenthetically, "was there a whiff of paedophilia here?" (248). But the word is front and center in his treatment of Carroll. The children in Carroll's poems are "actors in a paedophile drama," or "a paedophiliac-pederastic drama" (178, 179). Carroll is represented as a grasping predator, always just a hair away from molestation:

Carroll's chemically blackened fingers are all over the little white frocks of lovely little Alice Liddell that he carefully loosened for one of his ragamuffin photographs: a close, but only just not-too-close touching. No wonder Mrs Liddell started keeping her daughters clear of this eager poetic photographer. (178)

This is tendentious to say the least. There is a great deal to be said, responsibly, about the Victorian eroticization of the child—in the photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron, for instance, which can often seem to a modern viewer far more unsettling than Carroll's (and which Cunningham does not mention). But the subject demands careful attention, not mere insinuation. Since the publication of James Kincaid's Child-Loving (1992), the only book on this subject that Cunningham cites, there has been a great deal of serious scholarly writing about the erotic aspect of Carroll's art, and about the possible reasons for his break with the Liddell family. Given this scholarship, and given too that Cunningham has truly interesting things to say about Carroll's poetry, his reductive caricature of the man is all the more surprising and unfortunate; but it is in keeping with his representation of other writers as well. Even Christina Rossetti, about whom Cunningham writes as much and as well as about any other Victorian poet, is at times glibly portrayed as a frustrated spinster whose poetic and religious fervor sprang chiefly from thwarted sexual desire ("what virginal Christina G only ever dreamed of" [347]).

All of the above constitute what I would call flaws—defects that, however serious, could be fixed, many of them with relative ease. On a different level, however, Cunningham's study also contains a number of more fundamental weaknesses. As I have already noted, it does not claim to forward an overall argument (as Armstrong's book, for instance, does); its value lies not in the new critical ground it stakes out but in the broad, synthetic overview it provides. Nevertheless, the points Cunningham makes about Victorian poetry are weakened by being overly general, in two senses. In the first place, each of these points is meant to apply to the entirety of Victorian poetry. He never divides the era into different periods, and rarely into camps or schools, but quotes poems written many decades apart and in widely different contexts to illustrate the same point. This method has the great advantage of revealing often startling connections across nearly seventy years of poetry; but it also means that every major claim in the book is unhelpfully vague. Each chapter sets out to demonstrate something so general as to be uninformative -- such as the notion (chapter 6) that Victorian poetry displays anxiety about personal identity: "there is something—much, in fact—that's patently up with the contemporary sense of the self"; "There's extreme edginess here" (198, 215). This need to have all the evidence in a given chapter point in the same direction means that even Cunningham's best individual readings tend to terminate with a generalizing gesture—"But then so it is all over the Victorian place" (133)—which reduces them to a truism ("something is up with the Victorian sense of self") inevitably less interesting than the more particular point they seemed to be making.

The second major weakness, closely connected, is that Cunningham rarely explains how his generalizations apply peculiarly to Victorian poetry. How does the Victorian fascination with childhood (chapter 5) differ from that of the Romantics? How does the prominence of the body in Victorian poetry (chapter 7) differ from its importance in Renaissance poetry—or poetry of any period? Such questions are seldom addressed. Some of the best moments in the book come when Cunningham offers a glimpse—often no more than a paragraph -- of historical context. His readings of Hopkins and Carroll, for instance, are greatly illuminated by brief descriptions of contemporary philology's conjectures about the possible origins of language, either in onomatopoeia or in infantile nonsense syllables (81, 178). His discussion of Robert Browning's "Fra Lippo Lippi," with its speaker's painterly attention to human faces, is enriched by a short excursus on the Victorian practices of physiognomy and phrenology (267-268). But these moments are extremely rare. Of course Cunningham is not trying to write a historicist account of Victorian poetry; his chief interests are in poetic forms (Part I of his book) and themes (Part II). But there is no reason why he could not, using these same methods, explain how Victorian elegy (for instance) differs formally and thematically from the equally elegiac poetry written by the Romantics. Instead, his chapter on mourning and melancholia (chapter 8) asserts that these things were simply more prevalent in the Victorian period. That claim may be true, but it does not do justice to the more than eighty pages of examples and analysis his chapter provides. In short, Cunningham's unwillingness to draw distinctions—either between different parts of Victorian poetry, or between Victorian and other poetry—unfortunately flattens out his readings and reduces their value.

Nevertheless, this book deserves attention. Cunningham reveals a breadth of knowledge of the field that few can match. The results of a lifetime of inquisitive reading and critical thinking are here tessellated into a sprawling yet coherent, and certainly vivid, mosaic. Scholars of Victorian poetry may find themselves frustrated by the book—disappointed by the absence of sustained argument and by the repetition of over-familiar themes and observations. But I cannot imagine any reader, no matter how learned, who would not be frequently surprised by some new piece of information or insight, ranging from the history of the term "mopping and mowing," to a consideration of poems about dolls, or about Lazarus, to novel examples of the way in which Victorian poetry prefigures Modernism (the subject of the final chapter). The book is not intended, moreover, primarily for experts, but for amateurs—those who love this poetry, even if they do not make a career of studying it. For this audience, too, the book has its drawbacks, as I have described. Yet overall, and at its best, it provides what few critical books can offer: a highly readable, even rollicking account of the whole era, as variegated and lively as Victorian poetry itself.


Valentine Cunningham Victorian Poetry Now: Poets, Poems and Poetics. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. xiii + 537 pp.

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Last modified 8 July 2014