‘In poetry’, Matthew Arnold announced in 1880, ‘the spirit of our race will find … its consolation and stay.’ It is a reassuring idea, but as Arnold had already pointed out in the Preface to his 1853 Poems, the hope that poetry would provide a cultural ‘stay’ (a device for supporting or steadying a structure) was all too often hampered in the period by writing which seemed to be suffering from a different form of ‘stay’: ‘a stoppage, arrest, or suspension of action; a check, set-back’. Consider W. H. Mallock’s pamphlet Every Man His Own Poet: Or, The Inspired Singer’s Recipe Book (1872), which offered tongue-in-cheek advice on ‘How To Write A Poem Like Mr Tennyson’. To produce an epic like Idylls of the King, for example, take ‘one blameless prig’, add ‘a beautiful wife’ and ‘one married goodly man’, tie them together in a bundle ‘with a link or two of Destiny’, and surround them by ‘a large number of men and women of the nineteenth century, in fairy-ball costume, flavoured with a great many possible vices, and a few impossible virtues’.
Stir these briskly about for two volumes, to the great annoyance of the blameless prig, who is, however, to be kept carefully below swearing-point, for the whole time. If he once boils over into any natural action or exclamation, he is forthwith worthless, and you must get another. Next break the wife’s reputation into small pieces, and dust them well over the blameless prig. Then take a few vials of tribulation, and wrath, and empty these generally over the whole ingredients of your poem, and, taking the sword of the heathen, cut into small pieces the greater part of your minor characters. Then wound slightly the head of the blameless prig, remove him suddenly from the table, and keep him in a cool barge for future use.