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In 1889, the end of the decade in which all the major literary societies dedicated to poets were formed, Andrew Lang bemoaned their impact: ‘They all demonstrate that people have not the courage to study verse in solitude and for their proper pleasure, men and women need confederates in this adventure.’ This shift in reading practices took place during an important decade for poetry. It was the decade during which some of the era’s most renowned poets died, including Matthew Arnold, Robert Browning, and Dante Gabriel Rossetti. It was the decade in which the relevance of poetry was increasingly questioned, as vernacular English literature was being claimed as having the capacity to be studied ‘scientifically’ like its sibling rival philology. It was also the decade that witnessed extended debate over the establishment of university Chairs of English Literature. In this context, this chapter examines the establishment and overwhelming popularity of literary societies in the 1880s, tracing their movement away from the ethos of a scholarly gentleman’s club towards more democratic, inclusive and experimental literary associations that tangibly impacted the reading of poetry in the 1880s.
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