Victoriographies, 1.1 (2011): 14–35
This article responds to the question ‘Whither Victorian Studies?’ by suggesting four profitable areas and modes for further research: (i) reception history; (ii) transnational studies; (iii) education studies; and (iv) poetry studies. By way of an exemplum, the essay then conducts a wide-ranging investigation of W. E. Henley’s Invictus (1888) and Rudyard Kipling’s If (1910), prime instances of poems that have been widely memorised and awarded the status of national favourites in the United States and Great Britain. Employing both traditional close-reading strategies and historical analyses of the circumstances of their composition, publication, and reception, the essay argues that such a study yields at least two important benefits. In the first place, it throws light upon the nationally distinct after-effects of one of the Victorian period’s most remarkable literary formations, the cultures of mass poetry recitation that were formally consolidated in the last quarter of the nineteenth century within British and American public education. In the second, it focuses attention upon the poems’ relation to national difference itself, gesturing towards the divergent attitudes to the nation’s educational history, to the operation of class, and to the ideology of individualism that prevail within Great Britain and the United States.
Take two poems, two poems from the Victorian era (more or less – a word on that in a moment): W. E. Henley’s ‘Invictus’ and Rudyard Kipling’s ‘If –’. For at least the last twenty years, these celebrated works, in company with a few notable others such as Sir Henry Newbolt’s ‘Vitai Lampada’, have been considered casebook expressions of an elite hypermasculine identity produced at the acme of British imperialist fervour. Today all three named poems regularly do sterling work in the university seminar room or lecture theatre, their nicely- limited number of lines allowing instructors in English literature succinctly to set forth ideas about the reproduction of exacting codes of ruling-class manliness; the ideology of the stiff upper lip; the contours of an expansionist colonial imagination; and so forth.