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  • Print publication year: 2010
  • Online publication date: June 2012

2 - Victorian dialogues with poetic tradition


Here Homer, with the broad suspense

Of thunderous brows, and lips intense

Of garrulous god-innocence.

There Shakespeare, on whose forehead climb

The crowns o' the world: O eyes sublime

With tears and laughters for all time!

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “A Vision of Poets” (1844)

Poets' use of inherited subject matter and forms such as the ode, sonnet, or ballad entails a conversation with poetic precursors and consideration of how well readers will understand each adaptation or break with tradition. Drawing on tradition can impart authority or cultural prestige to new work, enable greater poetic force and economy through allusion, inspire poets to new inventiveness in meeting formal challenges, attract connoisseurs who appreciate the niceties of adaptation, foster a poet's expression of solidarity with a community or ideological orientation, or highlight local experimentalism within a larger bow to precedent. Poets thus offer competing visions of how tradition should be approached, entering into dialogue with the living as well as the dead. The first question to pose of a Victorian poem adapting inherited material and forms, then, is how the poet is appropriating poetic tradition and to what artistic and cultural end. Though references to classical and modern European precedent often overlap, as in Barrett Browning's citation of Homer and Shakespeare in “A Vision of Poets,” they are treated separately below to give some shape to a broad, amorphous, yet vital issue in Victorian poetry.

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