Description of session

 This panel proposes that we deepen our study of Victorian poetry through diversifying our archives and enlarging our sense of where poems were found and how they circulated in nineteenth-century verse culture. This “verse culture” differs from twentieth-century ideas of reading poems because it is not as decontextualized as modern(ist) reading practices assume. For example, Christina Rossetti’s Maude: Prose & Verse (c. 1850) illustrates how the eponymous poetesses’ most complete volume of collected work is a “writing-book” that “was neither Common-Place Book, Album, Scrap-Book nor Diary; it was a compound of all these; and contained original compositions not intended for the public eye, pet extracts, extraordinary little sketches and occasional tracts of journal.” Maude’s prose narrative then situates Maude’s verse by introducing contextualized meaning (without the frame, the poetry would tend toward the subjective lyricism celebrated by modernist critical theories). The writing-book also suggests the importance of context; its generic variety illustrates that poems bordered other genres and authors. Exploring verse found in other places besides the published volume of poetry expands our critical ideas about reading and writing, taxonomy and genre, and editing and publication.

Historical poetics has something to say about what we select as our archives. Current work in nineteenth-century historical poetics includes poetess studies, historical prosody, transatlantic print culture, and the place of poetry in Victorian musical, visual, or material culture. Our panel exemplifies historical poetics by studying Victorian poems through or juxtaposed with other fine arts as themselves technological productions and reproductions. It thus historicizes and theorizes nineteenth-century reading practices.

The panelists widen current discussions by proposing a further diversification of Victorian verse archives beyond poems printed in books; our topics include recorded recitations and musical materials. More than a place where you recover things (content), we believe that the archive can be seen as a theoretical space. Specifically, the archive can be theorized as reconstructive process; it highlights the question of mediation. As we turn to different archives for historicizing and theorizing ideas about poetry, we must also ask if digitization allows us to extend historical poetics by presenting multi-media material. Or will it occlude this by decisions of what and how to digitize? We propose that the question of mediation is crucial because a multi-media approach and a widening of verse archives can make Victorian poems more accessible. The three papers are sequenced to present these issues.

Phyllis Weliver’s contribution, “Recovering Tennyson’s ‘melody in poetry’: Salon Recitations and Musical Settings,” considers how Tennyson’s performances were crucial to communicating acoustic aspects of verse that lived off the page. This paper reclaims those sonic effects by studying Emily Tennyson’s musical scores (Tennyson Research Centre, Lincolnshire County Council), Mary Gladstone’s letters and diaries (Flintshire Record Office; British Library), and Tennyson’s phonograph recitations (British Library Sound Archives). In recurring social situations among those who were part of Tennyson’s circle, print was an alternative effect or variant in contrast to the live voice of the poet whose performance was inseparable from the poetry’s meaning. Tennyson’s spoken (and sung) verse embodied his belief that “there ought to be some melody in poetry.” What he meant can be recovered by reading the poems in conjunction with hearing then-innovative sound technologies: Tennyson’s phonograph readings and Emily Tennyson’s piano/vocal settings of her husband’s verse – the last a neglected scholarly source. Weliver particularly studies Emily Tennyson’s setting of “Break, break, break” to solve its scansion dilemmas and introduces the social element of hearing Britain’s premier poet read aloud.


Joanna Swafford’s paper, “Digital Archives and the Music of Victorian Poetry,” discusses the vital role of digital humanities in the diversification of the Victorian verse archive, as new technologies can grant academics access to items that would otherwise require extensive travel funding or a sabbatical to view. As a case study, she will focus on popular musical settings of Victorian poems, such as Michael William Balfe’s “Come into the Garden, Maud” (based on Alfred Lord Tennyson’s monodrama, Maud) and Sir Arthur Sullivan’s setting of Adelaide Procter’s “A Lost Chord.” By interpreting the poems they set, such songs suggest how contemporaries may have analyzed these verses. However, merely digitizing musical scores helps only the most musical scholars, since many academics cannot read music or hear in their minds the notes printed on the page. Her digital project, “Songs of the Victorians” (, poses a solution to this problem: it displays Victorian parlor- and art-song settings of contemporaneous poetry, integrating first edition printings of the scores with audio files to highlight each measure in time with the music. The act of digitally archiving these songs is itself a Victorian project, participating in nostalgic attempts to stave off loss through remediation and technological innovation.


In the third paper, “Breaking Again into Song,” Yopie Prins builds on the first two papers of the panel by reflecting further on the use of digital archives to re-mediate the presentation of research on meter and music in Victorian poetry. To demonstrate how scholars might work with new online resources developed by Meredith Martin (the Princeton Prosody Archive) and Joanna Swafford (Songs of the Victorians), Prins takes as example her article, “‘Break, Break, Break’ into Song.” Written for publication in print (in Meter Matters: Verse Cultures of the Long Nineteenth Century, edited by Jason Hall in 2011), the metrical and musical illustrations in this article present special challenges and opportunities for digital display. Prins describes the process of preparing the article for “Songs of the Victorians,” including more detailed analysis of musical settings of “Break, Break, Break,” and considering other ways to imagine how Tennyson’s poem might re-sound, or seem to sound, in various media. 

Information on panelists’ and presider’s scholarship

This panel rests on the idea of having three participants and a presider from different stages in their careers who are all widening a sense of what Victorian verse was considered to be through making use of fresh archives. 

Phyllis Weliver (panelist and organizer) is Associate Professor of English at Saint Louis University. Her two monographs (2000, 2006), numerous articles, and two edited essay collections (2005, 2013) make connections among Victorian literature, music in Britain, and discourses such as science, gender, and politics. Of particular relevance to this panel is her edited collection, The Figure of Music in Nineteenth-Century British Poetry (2005) which sought to bring forward a fresh research topic and new methodologies. Current research on Mary Gladstone and the Victorian Salon, 1876-1883: Music, Literature, Liberalism and the Aesthetic Critic studies spoken word and musical performance in the salon of Prime Minister Gladstone and rests on a heavily archival approach, utilizing public and private collections of music, verse, phonograph recordings, marginalia, and a wide range of life writing including visitors' books, diaries and letters.

Joanna Swafford (panelist) is a PhD candidate in the English Department at the University of Virginia, specializing in Victorian poetry, sound studies, and digital humanities.  Her dissertation, “Transgressive Tunes and the Music of Victorian Poetry,” traces the gendered intermediations of poetry and music, and she has forthcoming articles in Victorian Poetry, Victorian Review, and the Victorian Institute Journal’s Digital Annex. She has received multiple digital humanities fellowships—the Scholars’ Lab Fellowship, the Praxis Program Fellowship, and the NINES fellowship—and her digital project,, is an archive and scholarly tool that facilitates interdisciplinary music and poetry studies.
Yopie Prins (panelist) is Professor of English and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan.  Specializing in Victorian poetry, nineteenth-century classical reception studies, and comparative poetics, she is the author of Victorian Sappho (1999) and co-editor of The Lyric Theory Reader: A Critical Anthology (2014). She received a Guggenheim Fellowship for research on a book about Victorian women translating Greek tragedy, entitled Ladies’ Greek (2014).  Currently she is completing a book on Victorian poetry and prosody, entitled Voice Inverse: Meter and Music in Victorian Poetry.
Meredith Martin (presider) specializes in anglophone poetry from 1830 to the present, with special interests in historical poetics, poetry and public culture, and disciplinary and pedagogical history. She is the author of The Rise and Fall of Meter: Poetry and English National Culture, 1860-1930 (Princeton, 2012) and numerous articles and reviews in Victorian Poetry, Victorian Studies, Modernism / Modernity, and The Victorians Institute Journal Online Annex. In 2011, she co-edited special issues on prosody for Victorian Poetry and The Hopkins Quarterly. Since 2007, she has been editing and overseeing an ambitious project in digital humanities: the Princeton Prosody Archive, an archive of writing on prosody between 1750-1923, currently funded by the Mellon Foundation, that includes thousands of searchable manuscripts, manuals, articles, grammar books, and materials. Martin also oversees the online "Poetry@Princeton" website.