the digital annex
from Virtual Victorian Poetry
by Alison Chapman
In 1895, reviewing his attempt over twenty years earlier to provide an account of Victorian poetry – to define, categorize, and canonize the genre – E. C. Stedman commented that “[e]ven the adjective ‘Victorian’ was unfamiliar, if it had been employed at all.”[i] But the adjective “Victorian” still required explication in his Victorian Anthology 1837-1895, as well as in his critical book Victorian Poets.[ii] In fact, defining the field of Victorian poetry was a question many critics and poets reflected upon at the end of the century, especially in essays, reviews, and poems published in periodicals (by which I mean all forms of serial ephemeral print). This chapter addresses attempts to categorize poetry’s value at the end of the nineteenth century through the cultural work of poems published in periodicals. At a time when the body of poetry from the Victorian era was under scrutiny, the status of poetry within serial print became a particular marker of modernity: it signified immersion in a virtual world, but also reflected that virtual world’s limitations.
The prominent editor, critic, and poet Oscar Wilde determined that women poets were particularly important at the century’s end not just for their impressive artistry, but also “for the light they throw upon the spirit of modern culture.”[iii] A poet featured prominently in Wilde’s monthly magazine Woman’s World was Mary C. Gillington (1861-1936), one of the most prolific (and arguably one of the least known) writers of this period.[iv] In 1889, the magazine published a set of pastoral love poems by Gillington. Her twelve-part sequence suggests that, during the late Victorian period, at a time when sustained critical and editorial attempts were made to define the era’s poetry as “Victorian” poems in ephemeral print responds to similar questions about the place and value of poetry. Gillington’s highly stylized poems follow the rural calendar to narrate the shepherd-speaker’s courtship of his beloved milkmaid Amabel, from her first greeting at the beginning of the year to the requited love of Christmas Eve. Each poem is set in antiquated type with a framed pastoral illustration that includes a decorative banner heading for the month. The twelve periodical contributions comprise serial poetry: a cycle of monthly installments that depicts courtship in a conventional narrative arc. Using Gillington’s poems as a test case, this paper explores poetry’s engagement with the conception of time embodied in periodical print culture, the hyper-temporality of a virtual world that is date-stamped and yet cyclical.
[i] E. C. Stedman, A Victorian Anthology 1837-1895: Selections Illustrating the Editor’s Critical View of British Poetry in the Reign of Victoria (Boston and New York: Houghton, Mifflin, and Co., 1895) xi-xii; E. C. Stedman, “Victorian Poets,” The Century Magazine January 1873: 357-64.
[ii] E. C. Stedman, Victorian Poets (London: Chatto and Windus, 1875, revised and expanded edition 1887, 1893).
[iii] Oscar Wilde, “Literary and Other Notes,” Woman’s World, November 1887: 36-40 (39).
[iv] M. C. Gillington’s 1889 poems in Woman’s World are: “The First Night of the Year” (January, 155), “St. Valentine’s Day” (February, 198), “Gusty Weather” (March, 271), “Cloudy Skies” (April, 310), “The Shearing at the Stepping-Stones” (May, 381), “A Morning Meeting” (June, 405), “Summer Night” (July, 464), “Amabel at Work” (August, 521), “‘All Among the Barley’” (September, 573), “A Complaint” (September, 610), “A Grey Day” (October, 632), and “Christmas Eve” (October, 664).