The past is a foreign country; they write poems differently there.

My Material Cultures paper is coming together at last, with a little over a month and a half to go before I present it. I suspect a lot of the points I’m making have been made at least once or twice before, but I’m working with a body of evidence that doesn’t seem to have been examined in a lot of detail, and I have so much to say about it that I’m going to have a hard time cramming it all into 20 minutes. There are so many more commonplace books I want to look at that I think this could very easily become an extended project of some sort: perhaps a journal article, or if I get wildly ambitious, I’d still like to build a database to track the reputations of individual poets and poems among Victorian readers.*

One of the things I’ve been realizing, as I pore over extract books from various points in the 19th century, is how different my own literary tastes are from those of the people I’m studying. One finds Familiar Canonical Poets in these commonplace books, of course. Shakespeare turns up regularly, mostly in the form of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations-style snippets from the plays; Byron was wildly popular, much more so than his fellow Romantic poets; the most famous 19th-century Americans—Longfellow, Whittier, Bryant—are heavily represented as well.

But one also finds dozens of now-obscure poets, not to mention reams of poetry that strikes the modern ear as sentimental, even treacly. The poems in these collections tend to be heavy on the moralizing, or on the kind of pathos that Mark Twain sent up so vividly in the person of Emmeline Grangerford. I’ve paged through entire albums filled with sad poems about dead children, pious poems about Christian resignation, and upbeat love songs. One can resuscitate the reputation of a Felicia Hemans or a Letitia Elizabeth Landon; but it’s harder to do that with Coventry Patmore’s The Angel in the House (quoted seven times in one Boston woman’s extract book), especially after reading what Virginia Woolf had to say about it.

On my most recent visit to Brown I encountered a poem by Edward Augustus Rand, an Episcopalian minister born in Vermont, which began:

Across the sands, strange darkness fell;
The sun had dipped beneath a cloud;
The waves now sullenly swept on,
The surf fast whitened to a shroud.

But then the speaker sees a sunlit white sail in the distance, and neatly unpacks the metaphor to conclude with “O souls that find in Christ the light, / Sail on across life’s shadowed sea!” I rather liked the ominous first stanza, but I felt a distinct flash of disappointment when I saw how it ended. The combination of religiosity and sunny optimism was off-putting to my tastes, which were honed, like every other English major’s tastes, on the irony and disjunctiveness and unsettlement of Modernism and its aftermath. This kind of poetry is exactly what 20th century literary culture revolted against.

But people clearly loved this kind of poetry—cut it out of newspapers, saved it in their albums and scrapbooks, copied it out by hand, shared it with each other, kept their compilations and passed them on to friends and relatives. And one of the things I’m interested in is getting past my own aesthetic prejudices, which are very much of my own time and place, to try to understand what the Victorians saw in their (rather different) canon.** There’s something moving about all the effort so many people went through to preserve these poems; staying aware of that has been a useful corrective to my own literary snobbery.

Take, for instance, Longfellow’s “A Psalm of Life,” which was much beloved by Victorian readers but is apt to sound almost unbearably earnest nowadays. Not long ago, I found one of its most famous stanzas emblazoned on a vintage postcard from around 1913:

Poetry postcard, 1913

One’s first impulse may be to roll one’s eyes; but the fact that postcard companies could print poems like this on cards and sell them is yet another piece of evidence for their popularity. And the appetite for reassuring, uplifting, optimistic poetry hasn’t gone away. I used to see “A Psalm of Life” quite regularly on the backs of Celestial Seasonings tea boxes, before they stopped putting entire poems on their packaging. (I could probably do an entire spinoff project on the detachable poetic quotation as it appears on various types of commercial products. But I have to finish this stage of the project first.)

Most of this won’t fit in the paper, which is less concerned with aesthetics than with reading practices and with the physical construction of homemade texts, although I do plan to sneak that postcard into my slides. But I wanted to share it anyway, because it seemed to interesting not to think through.

* It would be an enormous amount of work, and there would be all sorts of logistical challenges, but I still think it would be a very cool project. Had I but world enough and time, &c.

** Joanne Dobson’s “Reclaiming Sentimental Literature” (American Literature 69 no. 2, 1997) says a lot of what I’d like to say about the mismatch between 19th-century poetry and 20th-century aesthetic sensibilities.

3 Responses to “The past is a foreign country; they write poems differently there.”

  1. dale says:

    Back when I was going to be an academic, one of the dissertations I didn’t write was about pathos, and the modern blank refusal to respond to it. I was going to start with Chaucer’s Legend of Good Women, which is still commonly, and utterly wrongly, taken as some kind of parody or irony — because no real poet could possibly just write story after story about wronged women pathetically lamenting.
    But he did, and it was as popular, in his time, as the Canterbury Tales, perhaps more so. But we’ve forgotten how to read that stuff. Of course, it must be that the taste of our forbears was defective — it couldn’t be that our is — but still it’s a curiously disturbing project, to try to become an audience that can respond to it.

  2. Amanda says:

    The professor who taught the undergrad class I took on the Canterbury Tales once told us, apropos of the Clerk’s Tale and the difficulty of knowing how to respond to it, that as a child she had a story book with a retelling of the Patient Griselda story in it, and it never failed to make her cry every time she read it; and even years and years later, despite the much more ambivalent set of responses she had to it, the pathos was still there.
    That was a great class, really. Thank you for reminding me of it!

  3. dale says:

    Wow, it sounds like a great class. I wonder wherever she can have gotten a version of Griselda?