Meredith L. McGill, ed.

The Traffic in Poems: Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Transatlantic Exchange

Meredith L. McGill, ed. The Traffic in Poems: Nineteenth-Century Poetry and Transatlantic Exchange. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008. 264 pp. ISBN: 0-8135-42308 (hardback). £47.95 (UK), $70.00 (USA). ISBN: 0-8135-42294 (paper). £17.50 (UK), $24.95 (USA).

Reviewed by Stephanie Kuduk Weiner, Wesleyan University
(online, October 2008)

This excellent collection of essays makes an important contribution to the study of nineteenth-century literature and culture in Britain and the United States and forwards a persuasive appeal for a transatlantic criticism of nineteenth-century poetry. As Meredith L. McGill argues in her introductory essay, historians and scholars of literary prose have focused more than have poetry specialists on the trans- and circum-Atlantic aspects of British and American culture. Poetry scholars’ relative neglect of the trans-Atlantic dimensions of their subject reflects the shift in emphasis in graduate training from broad expertise in both English and American poetry to expertise in a national poetry considered as a vital element of a national literature and culture. The scholars whose work is collected in The Traffic in Poems exemplify the strengths of the latter model—theoretical sophistication, engagement with non-canonical texts and authors, and interdisciplinary and comparative approaches—and bring them to bear as they return our gaze to the composition, publication, and reception histories that together created a genuinely Anglo-American poetic world. Accordingly, the long and varied imaginative life of nineteenth-century poetry that is visible here is at once surprising and oddly familiar: centered on the Caribbean and Maine as well as on London and New York, cutting across lines of period and school, full of women poets and ‘pirated’ poems, and engaged with forms and genres both ‘high’ and ‘low,’ traditional and experimental. I summarize briefly here the volume’s concern with women poets, publishing history, and poetic forms; other scholars will no doubt find other themes of interest in this wide-ranging collection.

Women poets appear throughout The Traffic in Poems, both in a transatlantic dialogue within the ‘poetess tradition,’ as in the essay by Tricia Lootens, and beyond its bounds, in essays by Max Cavitch, Kate Flint, Kirsten Silva Greusz, Mary Loeffelholz, and Michael Moon. Two popular, book-length, blank verse poems inspired by Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh (1856)—Josiah Holland’s Kathrina (1867) and Lucy Larcom’s An Idyl of Work (1875)—are the subject of Loeffelholz’s essay. For Loeffelholz, these poems suggest how ‘British poetry and especially British narrative poems [. . .] are inextricably part of the substance and the structure of the post-Civil War American cultural field,’ a statement which, with the inclusion of a ‘vice versa,’ might also be read as a credo for the collection (140). The sophistication with which Emily Dickinson understood and reacted to that cultural field is explored in Moon’s contribution, ‘No Coward Souls: Poetic Engagements between Emily Brontë and Emily Dickinson.’ Flint examines the interweaving of American poems into English literary culture, arguing that ‘Vanishing Indian’ poems by Felicia Hemans and Eliza Cook offer especially complex rejoinders to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s treatment of cultural origins, change, and nostalgia in Song of Hiawatha (1855). In ‘The Cafetal of María del Occidente and the Anglo-American Race for Cuba,’ Greusz situates the poetry of Maria Gowen Brooks, a native New Englander and longtime resident of Cuba, and her publishing success in the United Kingdom, within a network of friendships and literary debates that involves men and women writers around the Atlantic world. The Traffic in Poems, however, offers no explanation for why women poets—and, more broadly, women writers and artists such as Harriett Beecher Stowe and Mary Webb, the subjects of essays by William Galperin and Tavia Nyong’o—were especially central to circum-Atlantic literary culture, a question worthy of further investigation. That said, McGill does argue that ‘transatlantic approaches to nineteenth-century poetry’ are unique and valuable in making that centrality visible to scholars, who now ‘might well produce a literary history in which women poets are not the exception—marginal figures who need solicitously to be brought back into national canons—but figures who make legible the extranational origins of national myths and make it possible to track the shifting currents of cultural exchange’ (4).

One of those shifting currents is poetic form itself, as nearly every essay in this collection demonstrates. Flint attends to English interpretations of ‘the infamously insistent metre’ of Song of Hiawatha; Moon focuses on how Dickinson and Brontë use the hymn and the lyric sequence; and Loeffelholz notes how Holland and Larcom adopt techniques for verse narrative from William Wordsworth as well as Barrett Browning. Questions of form are the main focus of two outstanding essays by Virginia Jackson and Yopie Prins. Jackson investigates Bryant’s ‘postcolonial use’ of the Spenserian stanza, which British Romantic writers employed ‘in their own revisions of their own progressive and regressive national history’ (189). She shows how ‘the extraordinarily crafted structure of the stanza’ enables Bryant to convey ideas about national origins, the fate of civilizations, and history (201). Ultimately at stake in Jackson’s provocative reading of Bryant’s Spenserian stanzas is a critique of literary historians’ assumption ‘that the American poet should be free of public convention and speak toward the future in the language of the people,’ a history that casts aside Bryant, who ‘addressed himself to a contemporary public in the language of poetry’ (188). Something similar might be said of Walter Savage Landor and other unduly neglected figures, and Jackson’s argument opens up debates about both English and American Romanticism, politics, and rhetoric in exciting ways. Prins’s ‘Robert Browning, Transported by Meter’ brilliantly links the rhythms of Pippa Passes to three American ‘versions’ of its most famous lines, Pippa’s dimeter song ‘The year’s at the spring’: its publication as part of Browning’s complete poetical works in the timetable for the Chicago & Alton Railroad (1872-74), Amy Beach’s 1900 musical setting, and D. W. Griffith’s ‘Pippa Passes, or, The Song of Conscience’ (1909), which makes use of Beach’s song. ‘Encountering his text in various unpredictable contexts,’ Prins argues, ‘what we learn to read each time is not an original lyric ‘voice’ but rather the medium of its transmission’ (227). Despite their divergent subject matter, Jackson’s and Prins’s essays speak to one another in their attention to the relations between voice and poetic form, as well as to the printed poem and its musicality.

Indeed, the ‘printedness’ of nineteenth-century poetry is an implicit theme of The Traffic in Poems, which offers a kind of piecemeal history of the poetry book as it moved back and forth across the Atlantic. Places of publication and methods of distribution figure throughout the volume, as do the friendship networks that facilitate the transformations of manuscripts into print. Loeffelholz, for instance, quotes Lucy Larcom’s description in An Idyl of Work of the ‘democratic neighborhood’ of its heroine’s ‘bookshelf,’ where ‘Maria Edgeworth’s ‘Helen’ leaned against / Thomas à Kempis’ and ‘‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ stood up stiff between / ‘Locke on the Understanding’ and the Songs / Of Robert Burns’ (150). These books are material objects as well as synecdoches for ideas and arguments. In a fascinating essay, Adela Pinch discusses Thomas Bird Mosher’s 1891 unauthorized publication of George Meredith’s Modern Love, which had been out of print for thirty years before it appeared in Mosher’s lovely fine-press edition. And Moon shows how Dickinson’s reading of Brontë’s poetry proceeded from a recognition of the estrangement a body of poems undergoes with publication.

McGill’s effort to produce a useable as well as a stimulating volume is evident in the balance between the collection’s wide range, the precise focus of each essay (a strategy that ensures that each contribution is readable and teachable), and the inclusion of an index for the entire volume. The Traffic in Poems is a terrific book that has inspired me to pay more attention to the transatlantic dimensions of English and American poetry, and that will no doubt do the same for other scholars interested in the poetry of the Atlantic world.  

© Symbiosis, 2008