The Long Narrative Poem

Part of the Palgrave Studies in Nineteenth-Century Writing and Culture book series (PNWC)


There has been a sustained campaign, in recent years, against a conception of the nineteenth century as a period of short, lyric, easily digestible poetry; an unearthing of the innumerable behemoths, the retroactive excision of which from the Victorian canon has tended to skew perceptions of the poetic aspirations of the age. The layer of accumulated dust on many of these tomes is understandable. The day of Philip James Bailey’s 900-odd page Festus, Alexander Smith’s A Life-Drama and Austin’s The Human Tragedy, was short-lived, and the excavation of these more or less moribund giants serves rather as a recuperation of cultural history than an act of literary revival. This challenge to the version of literary history in which ‘Dover Beach’ and ‘Porphyria’s Lover’ are the archetypal forms of Victorian poetry has been mounted from various angles by writers such as Dino Felluga, reconstructing a narrative of the rise and decline of the verse-novel in the middle of the century; Adam Roberts, whose guide to Romantic and Victorian Long Poems probes the rationale behind the nineteenth-century obsession with length; and a host of commentators on the fraught after-life of the epic in modern times.1 The definitive study in this vein is Herbert Tucker’s magisterial survey Epic: Britain’s Heroic Muse, 1790–1910, which delivers the death blow to any lingering impression that the long poem was an anomalous and anachronistic creature on the post-Augustan literary scene. ‘In Robert Burns, George Crabbe, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and the two Rossettis’, he points out, ‘we may number on the fingers of one hand those who declined the challenge’ of the long — specifically epic — poem during this period.2


Modern Life Narrative Form Poetic Form Great Poet Epic Poetry 
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    Dino Felluga (2002) ‘Verse Novel’, in Richard Cronin, Alison Chapman and Antony H. Harrison (eds) A Companion to Victorian Poetry (Malden, MA: Blackwell), pp. 171–86Google Scholar
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  3. Recent writers on epic include Franco Moretti (1996) Modern Epic: The World-System from Goethe to García Márquez, trans. by Quintin Hoare (London: Verso)Google Scholar
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  5. Simon Dentith (2006) Epic and Empire in Nineteenth-Century Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Herbert F. Tucker (2008) Epic (Oxford: Oxford University Press), p. 2, n2.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Alfred Austin (1889) ‘On the Position and Prospects of Poetry’, in The Human Tragedy (London: Macmillan), pp. xxvii–xxviii.Google Scholar
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    The sentiment is almost Wordsworthian; and certainly the (at least partial) subject of Aurora Leigh echoes Wordsworth’s Prelude in tracing the ‘growth of a poet’s mind’. For a helpful account of the parallels (as well as some divergences–in particular, relating to gender) between The Prelude and Aurora Leigh, see Kathleen Blake (1986) ‘Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Wordsworth: The Romantic Poet as Woman’, Victorian Poetry, XXIV, 387–98.Google Scholar
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    Peter Brooks (1984) Reading for the Plot: Design and Intention in Narrative (Oxford: Clarendon Press), pp. 22, 20, 22. For a more comprehensive discussion of the temporality associated with narrative, and the nature of the lyric, see the introduction (‘Narrative, Lyric, and Time’) to Monique Morgan’s 2009 book Narrative Means, Lyric Ends: Temporality in the Nineteenth-Century British Long Poem (Columbus: Ohio State University Press).Google Scholar
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    Katharine Chorley (1962) Arthur Hugh Clough: The Uncommitted Mind. A Study of his Life and Poetry (Oxford: Clarendon Press), p. 152.Google Scholar
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Copyright information

© Natasha Moore 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Public ChristianityAustralia

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