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Sorting through Victorian verse

The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse, edited by Christopher Ricks. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 654 pp. $30. British Poetry and Prose 1870-1905, edited by Ian Fletcher. The Oxford Authors, general editor, Frank Kermode. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press. 497 pp. $34 cloth. $14.95 paper.

``Have you read Swinburne's `Atalanta' - the grandest thing ever yet done by a youth,'' wrote John Ruskin to Charles Eliot Norton in 1866. Like the great Victorian critic, generations of precocious schoolboys reveled in the rhythms of ``Atalanta in Calydon,'' boldly chanting the famous chorus that begins

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When the hounds of spring are on

winter's traces,

The mother of months in meadow or

plain Fills the shadows and windy places

With lisp of leaves and ripple of

rain; And the brown bright nightingale

amorous Is half assuaged for Itylus, For the Thracian ships and the foreign

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faces,

The tongueless vigil and all the pain.

Swinburne's ``Atalanta in Calydon'' is but one of many Victorian masterpieces missing from ``The New Oxford Book of Victorian Verse.'' Tennyson's haunting lyric, ``Tears, Idle Tears,'' his archetypally revealing ``Lady of Shalott,'' Ernest Dowson's histrionic but irresistible ``Non sum qualis eram bonae sub regno Cynarae'' with its oft-quoted refrain ``I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion,'' Swinburne's beautiful elegy to Baudelaire, ``Ave Atque Vale,'' and William Morris's powerful poem ``The Haystack in the Floods'' are missing as well.

There are, of course, compensations and some intriguing discoveries. John Clare, Emily Bront"e, and Christina Rossetti are well-represented (including ``Goblin Market'' in its entirety). James Henry's social protest verse is a treasure. The dialect poems of William Barnes, though charming, are for my taste overrepresented. And there are many poems by authors (like James Henry) too obscure to have found their way into ``The Oxford Companion to English Literature.'' Some, no doubt, are included as specimens of merely middling writing (although there is nothing by the best-selling bad poet Martin Tupper). Others, perhaps, exemplify what the editor considers the ``true voice of feeling.''

Matthew Arnold has been reduced to a handful of poems, while Arthur Hugh Clough, whom Arnold mourned - and condescended to - in his elegy ``Thyrsis'' (also not included) receives a kind of poetic justice from Ricks, who not only provides a good selection of his shorter pieces, but also reprints in its entirety Clough's interesting verse novel ``Amours de Voyage.'' Ricks is also sensitive to the novelistic quality of George Meredith's sonnet sequence ``Modern Love'': Although he does not reprint the whole, the parts he has chosen reveal Meredith's dazzling ability to combine the lyric and the satirical.

Christopher Ricks, formerly of Cambridge, currently professor of English at Boston University, fits this pattern of eccentricity, although he has not tampered with the time frame. Verse in this volume was either written or published - preferably both - between 1837 and 1900.

It was a period that fell short of the sublimity and originality of High Romanticism, that may have lacked the irony and innovations of Modernism, but that boasted a rich array of styles, subjects, techniques, and outlooks. These ranged from the inspired parodies of Lewis Carroll to the solemn pronouncements of Matthew Arnold, from Browning's rough rhythms to Tennyson's exquisitely Virgilian cadences, from the mystical religiosity of Hopkins to the quieter vision of Hardy. Certainly, there was no shortage of breathtaking poems - something one would not guess from a perusal of this collection.

Indulging his own taste - as have other editors before him - Ricks shows a propensity for the small, the light, the prosaic, and the trivial (not to say the quadrivial). Is this, perhaps, but the latest form of a decadence that willfully prefers the ``average'' verse specimen to the extraordinary poem? Or is Ricks engaged in a quest to rewrite literary history so that centuries of poetic endeavor should seem to lead up to the 20th-century ``heights'' of Larkin and Betjeman?

Ricks's selection of verse from the last three decades of Victoria's reign is substantially different from that offered by Ian Fletcher in ``British Poetry and Prose 1870-1905.'' Even when fishing the same waters, each editor chooses different poems.

Part of the excellent Oxford Authors series, ``British Poetry and Prose 1870-1905'' is something of a departure in that it covers a period rather than a person. Its starting date 1870 is somewhat misleading. In the 1870s, Tennyson, Browning, Meredith, Morris, and the Rosettis were still writing, yet none of their work appears here. (Fletcher does include ``Atalanta'' - even though it was written in 1865!)

The atmosphere of this volume is, I think, redolent of the 1890s, that twilight zone of aesthetes, imperialists, decadents, agnostics, Anglican and Roman Catholic pietists, alcoholics, homosexuals, Celtic revivalists, mystics, dreams, and social realists. Most of its poets were minor ones, or if major (like Yeats) still writing minor poems. The short story - well represented with selections from George Gissing, H.G. Wells, Richard Garnett, and Rudyard Kipling - flourished.

At first glance, the persistence of the minor key from 1870 to 1905 seems more understandable than in the broader period of 1837 to 1900 covered by Ricks. But Fletcher's exclusion of material that does not fit his idea of the era in queston also deprives us of an opportunity to reevaluate our own notions about that period.

Although his anthology is more professional and more cohesive than Ricks's, neither volume really succeeds in furnishing a fresh outlook on an age or in providing a broad enough overview to enable us to attain a fresh perspective of our own. But because each anthology features many intriguing minor pieces not easily found elsewhere, both may serve as useful supplements for readers who already own other collections of Victorian writing.

Merle Rubin is a free-lance book reviewer.


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