Tennyson, Browning, populism, Victoriana

A couple of posts back I lumped The Charge of the Light Brigade in with Kipling and Newbolt as ‘populist poetry’, as contrasted with ‘literary poetry’. I’m still not wild about that distinction, because it seems to imply an inverse correlation between accessibility and merit. But it does seem to capture some sort of truth. Notice it’s nothing to do with being ‘avant garde’ – in the comments to that post I contrasted Kipling and Hardy, and Hardy was no modernist. Highbrow vs. middlebrow would be part of the distinction, but that’s not quite right either.

Anyway. The Charge of the Light Brigade is interesting in this respect because Tennyson also wrote poems like In Memoriam A. H. H., which are (clearly?) ‘literary’. And Browning, who was also a ‘literary’ poet, wrote things like The Pied Piper of Hamelin. It’s a very Victorian tendency, a thick streak of populism in serious art. All those awful narrative paintings with titles like Faults On Both Sides, and the shamelessly crowd-pleasing novels of Dickens. In some ways it’s very democratic, so it seems a pity that the results were so awful. All aspects of the visual arts (architecture, painting, fashion, design) seemed to produce abomination after abomination, it’s one of the weakest of all periods of poetry in England; only the novel seemed to do well on it.

Does populism lead to bad art? Or were they both symptoms of something else?

cricket poetry

A couple of people have found this blog by googling ‘cricket poetry’. Well, I have one poem of my own that features cricket, and I wandered across this (very bad) poem on th’internet, but I can’t immediately think of any others except for this one, written about 1900, which I know is very well-known in the UK but any Americans reading may not have encountered before:

Vitaï Lampada
by Sir Henry Newbolt

There’s a breathless hush in the Close to-night –
Ten to make and the match to win –
A bumping pitch and a blinding light,
An hour to play and the last man in.
And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,
Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,
But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

The sand of the desert is sodden red, –
Red with the wreck of a square that broke; –
The Gatling’s jammed and the colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed his banks,
And England’s far, and Honour a name,
But the voice of schoolboy rallies the ranks,
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

This is the word that year by year
While in her place the School is set
Every one of her sons must hear,
And none that hears it dare forget.
This they all with a joyful mind
Bear through life like a torch in flame,
And falling fling to the host behind –
“Play up! play up! and play the game!”

How strange and creepy is that? Everything about it seems like a parody of Boy’s Own Britishness, down to the classical tag for a title (which translates as ‘light of life’, apparently), but it’s completely unironic. And, as unsettling as the poem is, it’s actually pretty well-written. Orwell, in his essay on Kipling, described him as ‘the only English writer of our time who has added phrases to the language’ [i.e. East is East, and West is West. The white man’s burden. What do they know of England who only England know? The female of the species is more deadly than the male]. Newbolt has some of that same vigorous phrase-making quality. The first four lines of Vitaï Lampada have been quoted a few times in the newspapers during the Ashes because they capture the tension of a close cricket match. The first four lines of S2 tend to be avoided, but actually they have the same vivid immediacy. Compared to Newbolt, or Kipling, or The Charge of the Light Brigade, Billy Collins starts to look pretty high-falutin’. He may write a somewhat watery version, but it’s still recognisably literary poetry. Vitaï Lampada is *real* populist poetry. Scary, innit?

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