Abstract

This article introduces the Digital Victorian Periodical Poetry project and explores its indexing and encoding principles as well as edge cases that help to redefine the era’s most read poetry.

What was the most read Victorian poetry, how do its formal and material features challenge current scholarly taxonomies of poetics and print culture, and to what extent does Victorian periodical poetry offer a more historically nuanced literary history? These questions drove the beginnings of Digital Victorian Periodical Poetry (DVPP) project from its start in 2010 as a relational database. Initiated before large-scale digital periodical indices began to include poetry and inspired by Linda K. Hughes’s influential 2007 article on periodical poetry and my graduate students’ research, the project started small, indexing all complete English-language poems in a sample of periodicals in the University of Victoria’s Special Collections. Institutional seed funding in 2014–15 supplemented the index with a test case of a hundred poems, encoded into TEI XML for poetic features. At this point, it was clear that DVPP was outgrowing its database. But these beginnings cemented approaches that have been important throughout the project: indexing and encoding protocols based on reader-centric periodical studies principles and user-centric digital design; collections-based research, for pragmatic (copyright) and conceptual reasons (local print corpus); and collaboration between faculty, programmers, librarians, and research assistants. In 2018 I was awarded a five-year Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada Insight Grant to expand the indexing and encoding and to create a web application that enables complex searches. The challenge, additionally, was to make available tools for the user to track any changes in the data over time (such as rhyme innovations, types of authorship, illustration practices). Driving the research questions was my interest in whether periodicals offered poems as sentimental filler, as critics had long assumed, or whether the poetry and periodicals laid claim implicitly or explicitly to literary value. Given that filler poetry is both a description of page layout (with poetry squeezed into a tiny space to make up room) as well as a literary judgment (low-brow trash), I was also curious whether these questions could be answered at scale.

DVPP is now available on a custom web application, and as I write, the site is in beta as we prepare for the first full release (figure 1). The project indexes all English-language poetry and poetry translations in a wide variety of twenty-one long Victorian periodical titles, based on print collections in the University of Victoria’s Special Collections.1 The corpus includes over 15,500 poems (including 1,740 translations), and a personography of over 4,000 people (poets, translators, and illustrators). In addition, the project transcribes and encodes a 2,100-poem sample, and every poem with an illustration and/or decoration has that feature encoded (for type and placement) with a figure description.2 In addition to complete indices of poems and people in the project, every individual poem record and person record has its own page. Poem record pages include page scans, bibliographical metadata, editorial notes with any attribution research, and illustration encoding and a figure description. Record pages for encoded poems also include transcriptions and tagging for poetic and material features (figure 2). Person record pages have key metadata, a biographical summary, and a list of all associated poems (figure 3). The three major components of DVPP—the poetry index, the encoded poem sample, and the personography—are interoperable, with each page of DVPP containing hyperlinks with multiple routes through the material, in addition to search pages that allow simple and complex queries of the material. For example, the poem page record for “Parting Words” by “V.” (see figure 2) has, under the “Metadata” tab, a hyperlink to the person record page for the poet (under “Poet”) as well as hyperlinks to the index of all poems in the same periodical (under “Source”) and to the index of all pseudonymous poems in the corpus (under “Authorship”).3 The “Poem Details” tab gives hyperlinks to index pages for the rhyme scheme and the illustration placement. DVPP also offers a comprehensive rhyme index, an anthology builder, and a facsimile browser. Built to be Endings complaint, as part of the digital sustainability plan, the project is based on pregenerated index pages and a static search.4

Figure 1 | Digital Victorian Periodical Poetry landing page.

Figure 1 | Digital Victorian Periodical Poetry landing page.

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Figure 2 | Poem record page for “Parting Words.”

Figure 2 | Poem record page for “Parting Words.”

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Figure 3 | Person record page for James Dawson (partial view).

Figure 3 | Person record page for James Dawson (partial view).

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Counting Poems

Throughout the life of DVPP, counting poems in the index was important to the team, as a marker of progress toward goals promised to funders but also as a measure of the feasibility of large-scale searching. Scale, or how many poems, was fundamental to the project’s success. But, from the outset, the question of what counts as a poem was also a fundamental challenge. Zooming out to scale up poems and zooming in to consider the singular poem both structure DVPP: a doubling built into the web application design that offers both exhaustive poem indices and a detailed record page for each individual poem. How to define a poem might seem like a surprising obstacle, especially as an important feature of periodical poems is the sharply defined graphic space of poetry, thanks to the space around the poetry lines, even in the tightest of columns and the most obvious looking filler poem, clearly differentiating poetry from surrounding prose. But, nonetheless, in the heterogeneity, profusion, and sheer messiness of periodical print, what counts as a poem is not always straightforward.

In what follows I give examples of poem edge cases in the DVPP index that challenge how we might define what counts as a Victorian poem, based on shared scholarly preconceptions of the era’s poetry evident even the most capacious teaching and research canon. But these outliers are in fact prolific, and collectively they invite us to question our very definition of what counts in the face of biblio-diversity and generic instability. First, DVPP indexers encountered from the start a considerable number of poetry translations into English, clearly positioning them for periodical readers as integral to poetry culture. DVPP indexes these translations, with metadata that capture the original poet and language as well as the translator. Currently there are 1,740 poetry translations (11 percent of the corpus).5 But the index contains a huge variety of translations—loose and free translations, faux translations, partial translations—so the project’s indexing principles approached this genre generously, as the Victorians also did, based on the poem signaling itself as a translation (commonly with formulaic titles such as “From the German,” “After Victor Hugo,” “A Gaelic Elegy,” “Translated from Æschylus,” or a citation to the original poem or passage within the title). DVPP has translations from forty-four original languages and from earlier historical eras; these are all discoverable in the poem search page. This diversity complements the diverse English-language poems, including poetry in Scots and in regional four nations dialects. Victorian periodical poetry, therefore, is not always Anglophone, nor always from the Victorian era, and the translated periodical poetry signals a rich, profuse, and heterogenous global poetry culture in British serial print.

Another DVPP outlier case is poetry cited within periodical prose contributions (including reviews, essays, travel writing, and fiction), included on the basis that readers would encounter these poems as much a part of the print culture as poems set out typographically as stand-alone unique contributions. The poem record metadata include the fact that the poem is from a prose contribution, with an editorial note that gives bibliographical information. Poems included in prose contributions are usually overlooked in indices, as if they have a lesser status, although scholarship has long acknowledged reviews as important means by which poets were widely circulated.6 Poetry translations mediate multiple non-Anglophone literary cultures, and poems in prose contributions mediate poetry enmeshed within other prose genres. These apparent outlier examples, in other words, in fact point to the rich print ecology of periodical poems.7

The question of whether a poem is a whole or a fragment represents a further editorial challenge that stretched our indexing principles, as the corpus is based on complete poems rather than extracts, quotations, or epigraphs. But whether the poem is complete or an extract is sometimes difficult to determine, because either unclear from the print context or unverifiable from other reputable sources. If DVPP is unable to verify whether the poem is complete, these poems are included anyway, on the basis that they are at least findable by users. Sometimes periodicals publish a selection from a longer poem as if it was complete in itself, even when sometimes making clear the lines form an extract. I decided to include these, on the principle that inclusion allows the user to filter out results. In particular, poems in prose contributions are sometimes difficult to determine as complete poems, and frequently poetry translations are in fact partial translations into English of longer poems, presented in the periodical as entire and complete in itself but also from a longer work.8 But this outlier example points to the wider issue that periodical print does not necessarily confer value on poetry on the basis of whether it is whole. Indeed, the very distinction between partial and complete is bound up in the structuring concept of nineteenth-century print miscellany that moves between extraction and expansion, as Mark Turner argues.9 In this case, the fundamental indexing principle adopted from the start of DVPP, giving status to complete poems as more valuable than incomplete poems, might well be at least partially incommensurate with the generic heterogeneity of periodical print.

The index also includes illustrated poem extracts that are presented as if complete in themselves in format and layout, often without giving any reference to the longer work. While the longer poem was typically well known, the extracts are still generally presented as stand-alone poems, although some also appear to function as captions to the illustrations, which dominate them in the page design: in other words, they do not fit neatly within or without DVPP’s editorial principles for what counts as a poem. There are several kinds of examples in DVPP, such as an extract from Robert Browning’s “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” retitled “Browning,” which accompanies Frederick Waddy’s cartoon sketch of the poet as the piper himself, as a kind of comedic poet portrait.10 Illustrated extracts are also a recurring feature of the monthly New Girl magazine Atalanta (1887–98), with portions from five well-known poems each published with an illustration: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “A Child Asleep,” Tennyson’s In Memoriam, James Hogg’s “The Skylark,” John Clare’s “May,” and Shelley’s “The Cloud.”11 Each poem is remade in this new visual print context. Barrett Browning’s poem becomes a short and apparently sentimental lyric about a sleeping child’s dreams, imperfectly matching the illustration of a young child asleep on a table holding a toy and with her head resting on a large open book, with the mismatch suggesting that the extract is chosen broadly to exemplify an illustration. One stanza from the Christmas section of Tennyson’s In Memoriam becomes a short illustrated lyric suitable for a December festive magazine issue. Hogg’s poem is reframed by the illustration to imply that it is the voice of a woman in a field, holding an issue of a magazine behind her, listening to birdsong. Clare’s stanza from “May” is placed in dialogue with an engraving after Helen Allingham’s A Cottage Home in England. And a stanza from Shelley’s “The Cloud” is placed, without any attribution or title, just beneath Ada Leonora Bowley’s illustration, retitled “November,” so that Shelley’s poem is transformed into a seasonal poem, a very common variety of periodical poem that celebrates the season or the calendar month of the publication, signaling the ephemeral and cyclical nature of serial print (figure 4). The repurposing of these poems from famous poets into illustrated lyrics participates in the cultures of reprinting, poetry extracting, and scissors-and-paste print practice.12 In these cases, however, the poems are both synecdochical pointers to the larger work and also presented as complete in themselves through association with an accompanying illustration. The famous names, of course, bring cultural prestige, but the poem’s value is also in its remaking and remediating. The fact that these poems do not strictly fit DVPP’s poetry indexing principles is precisely the point. The poetry that is most read in the era, in periodical print, is challenging to categorize and often does not fit neatly into critical conventions of what counts as a poem, and especially as a Victorian poem. The project metadata make these outliers discoverable, but the outliers also exemplify the miscellaneous quality of the corpus.

Figure 4 | Poem record page for “November.”

Figure 4 | Poem record page for “November.”

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A final example of apparent outliers is poems set to music, with the music score included as part of the illustrative treatment. Instances of poems embedded within musical scores are published in Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, Good Words, Atalanta, the Victorian Magazine, and The Nineteenth Century. Such examples suggest that song culture and performance were important to the function of periodical titles, and DVPP includes these kinds of periodical poems in the index. If the poems set to music are from the encoded poetry sample, the transcription has to insert the poetic line breaks, as with Tennyson’s “The Mist and the Rain,” prefaced with a full-page illustration by Arthur Hughes.13 In all these examples—poem translations, poems in prose contributions, poem extracts presented as complete, poems with musical scores—poetry is remade. Translated, incorporated, extracted, illustrated, set to music: Victorian poetry’s repurposing, recycling, and remediating in serial ephemeral print represent no mere edge cases. Rather, they define the life of the most read poems of the Victorian era: diverse, heterogenous, global, multilingual, multimodal.

Relating Poems

Not only do the DVPP indexing protocols force the project to ask what counts as a poem, but a major challenge is also to ask what counts as a single, separate poem and how a poem relates to others around it. Periodicals are full of varied kinds of implicit and explicit series of poetry, and an early goal of DVPP was to create a related poems taxonomy and make such sequences discoverable. DVPP’s editorial protocols involve indexing separate but connected poems as individual poem units, rather than indexing the entire sequence as one entry, and to connect them with their associated poems, adding a tag that defines the relationship. For example, Charles Tennyson Turner’s “Four Sonnets” is indexed as four separate poems rather than one poem, each with separate bibliographical metadata to make each poem discoverable, and all four poems are linked in the metadata tab of each poem record page.14 This sequence is defined in the taxonomy as a linked poem series published in a single periodical issue. This taxonomy also includes categories for linked series in consecutive issues and nonconsecutive issues, a distinction designed to capture the relationships between related poems and serial publication. Along with overt links between different poems—such as an overall title connecting separate numbered poems—periodicals also have more implicit relationships between poems, such as those published consecutively on the same periodical page, which offers intertextuality through proximity. Take Christina Rossetti’s “Consider,” for example (figure 5). This poem was first published in Macmillan’s Magazine for January 1866, when Rossetti was already an established Macmillan author for her volume Goblin Market and Other Poems (1862) and had by this date fourteen poems already published in the magazine.15 This poem also appears only a few months before Macmillan’s publication of The Prince’s Progress and Other in June 1886, a volume that also includes “Consider.”16 Positioned immediately beneath Rossetti’s poem, on the same page, is a poem by James Dawson, a much lesser known poet (see Figure 3).17 Dawson was a rural-class Manchester poet who worked as a farm laborer as well as attempted to establish himself as a journalist. The two poems have an interesting intertextual relationship in this close position, both in different ways addressing mutability and mortality. Whether or not this juxtaposition was intentional, DVPP leaves the user to judge, but the proximity of poems as consecutive would certainly imply a relationship for Victorian readers of Macmillan’s, and Dawson’s poem at the very least receives a signal boost from sharing a page with Rossetti. These poetic relationships are important to make legible, especially over a large corpus.

Figure 5 | Poem record page for “Consider.”

Figure 5 | Poem record page for “Consider.”

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In addition to overtly linked series (within the same issue, or consecutive or nonconsecutive issues) and consecutive poems published on the same page, DVPP’s taxonomy of related poems also includes poetic replies, duplicate poems, poems published in the same prose contribution, and single poems published in instalments (such as verse novels). All these relationships are expressed in TEI Linked Groups, and each poem record page contains hyperlinks to any related poem in the metadata panel along with the kind of relationship it expresses. The sheer extent and variety of separate but related poems published over single or multiple issues suggests that Victorian periodical readers were attuned to reading poems in complex relationships, often over different kinds of periodical time. Sometimes readers were called on to remember poems published many issues previously, such as Robert Peddie’s two “A Voice from Beverley” poems, published three months apart in the weekly radical Chartist Circular.18 Often periodicals offer an extended reading experience of poetic seriality, such as Bryan Waller Procter and Adelaide Anne Procter’s “Trade Song” series,19 Thomas Ashe’s verse novel in instalments,20 and May Clarissa Gillington’s seasonal poem cycle.21 Although the Linked Group encoding is ongoing as I write, it is already clear that a significant proportion of periodical poems are in an overt or implicit relationship with other periodical poems, suggesting that complex poetic seriality underpins periodical print.

But what differentiates a single poem with integral sections from many separate poems in an overt relationship with each other can be unclear, especially when published consecutively in a single issue. Sometimes several apparently miscellaneous poems are swept up together, often with one general title. For example, Gerard Massey’s “Poems for Christie” consists of six separate poems with their own titles, and the final poem is illustrated in a full-page design by Arthur Boyd Houghton.22 While these poems cohere under one general title, the connecting narrative seems only implicit, and so DVPP indexes them as separate but related poems rather than as sections of the same poem. In contrast, J. C. Shairp’s “Hours on Loch Etive” has two integral sections that interrelate the speaker’s memory of visiting the location with Norman Macleod and then with mourning his death, and as both parts seem integral to the poem overall and cannot be understood separately, DVPP indexes them as one poem.23 For other cases, however, how to index the poem is much less certain because the relationship between their different poem parts is less clear. For example, Lady E. Campbell’s “Random Chords” consists of two numbered poems, “1.—Alone” and “II.—Requiescat,” that seem both separate and yet also intrinsically connected by a common theme, and due to this uncertainty DVPP indexes “Random Chords” as one poem in two parts.24 Alexander H. Japp’s “Summer,” made up of “I.—Summer’s Advent” and “II.—Summer’s Twilight,” could also be read as separate poems, but their matching poetic form (two quatrains rhyming ABBA and two tercets with cross-stanza rhymes) and parallel placement on the page strongly suggest they invite readers to consider the numbered parts as one whole poem unit.25 When there is any uncertainty the project indexes the poem as a single overall unit, but the poem record editorial note lists any separately titled sections to aid user discoverability. While DVPP’s taxonomies are meant to be descriptive, this example of the related poems’ linked groups indicates that the heterogeneity of periodical poems nonetheless leads to some interpretative judgment calls as part of the indexing process, and while the project strives for consistency of indexing and encoding, the messiness inherent to periodical print as a genre means that some poems will not easily fit into categorization.

The challenge of distinguishing what counts as a whole poem, and what counts as separate poem in a related series, has repercussions for understanding poetry’s intertwined print and poetics contexts, especially in terms of kinds of serial reading and the relationship of lyric to narrative modes. One of the main factors determining whether several connected poem sections are in fact one whole poem is that the several parts cannot be indexed as separate poems because they are intrinsic to an entire interconnected narrative. This has implications for the emmeshed relationship between lyric and narrative modes in Victorian poetry as well as the reader’s expectation of reading serially. Indeed, all periodical poems are inevitably caught up in this interesting dynamic, as every periodical poem, as part of its periodical print ecology, is embedded in diverse surrounding prose discourses and narratives as well as embedded in complex relationships with other poems within and beyond the single issue.

These challenges in identifying and indexing poetry for DVPP disclose that Victorian periodical poems are far more complex and extensive than scholarship has so far accounted for, stretching critical taxonomies and often also defying categorization. As James Mussell notes, the digital affords an especial advantage for periodical print: “By taking us further away from printed periodicals, digital resources help us understand what it is that the printed periodicals represent.”26 But Victorian periodical poetry, as the highest circulating poems of the era, also defamiliarizes our shared sense of what Victorian poetry represents. By taking us further away from the material print and from the conventional teaching and research canon of Victorian poetry, digital metadata and taxonomies capture the distinctiveness of periodical poetry but also its strangeness, diversity, and complexity. The challenges of categorization that digital projects entail—especially, for DVPP, what counts as poetry as well as how to count poetry—allow us to productively defamiliarize Victorian poetry. In other words, by unknowing Victorian periodical poetry we make Victorian poetry anew.

Notes

Thanks are owed to the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada for generously funding DVPP, to my project partners at the University of Victoria’s Special Collections and the Humanities Computing and Media Centre, and to the entire DVPP team.

1.

All poems mentioned in this article are available in the Digital Victorian Periodical Poetry site (https://dvpp.uvic.ca/). For a list of periodicals, see https://dvpp.uvic.ca/periodicals.html. For project documentation, see https://dvpp.uvic.ca/about_dvpp.html.

2.

The encoded poem sample is based on poems published every ten years, from 1820 to 1900; see https://dvpp.uvic.ca/poems.html.

3.

V., “Parting Words,” The Keepsake, 1850, 113.

4.

Further information about Endings Compliance is available at https://endings.uvic.ca/compliance.html.

6.

See, for example, Alexis Easley, New Media and the Rise of the Popular Woman Writer, 1832–1860 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2022), chap. 3.

7.

The DVPP team are currently completing this indexing work as I write, but I estimate that poems in prose contributions will make up around 11 percent of the DVPP corpus, roughly the same as poetry translations.

8.

This is particularly true of partial translations from ancient Greek epics, such as Tennyson’s translation “Achilles Over the Trench,” Nineteenth Century 2, no. 6 (August 1877): 1–2.

9.

Mark W. Turner, “Seriality, Miscellaneity, and Compression in Nineteenth-Century Print,” Victorian Studies 62, no. 2 (Winter 2020): 283–94.

10.

Robert Browning, “‘Browning,’” Once a Week series 3, vol. 9, no. 216 (February 17, 1872): 169.

11.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, “A Child Asleep,” Atalanta 1, no. 4 (January 1888): 225; Alfred Lord Tennyson, “[The time draws near the birth of Christ],” Atalanta 3, no. 27 (December 1889): 154; James Hogg, “The Skylark,” Atalanta 1, no. 34 (July 1890): 602; John Clare, “May,” Atalanta 5, no. 56 (May 1892): 436–37; Percy Bysshe Shelley, “November,” Atalanta 6, no. 62 (November 1892): 87.

12.

See, for example, Meredith L. McGill, American Literature and the Culture of Reprinting 1834–1853 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013); Samantha Matthews, Album Verses and Romantic Literary Culture: Poetry, Manuscript, Print, 1780–1850 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020); Ellen Gruber Garvey, “Scissoring and Scrapbooks: Nineteenth-Century Reading, Remaking, and Circulating,” in New Media, 1740–1915, ed. Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003), 207–27; Ryan Cordell and David Smith, Viral Texts: Mapping Networks of Reprinting in 19th-Century Newspapers and Magazines (2022), http://viraltexts.org.

13.

Alfred Lord Tennyson, “The Mist and the Rain,” Good Words 12 (1871): 113–15.

14.

The first poem in the sequence is Charles Tennyson Turner, “Spring,” Macmillan’s Magazine 8, no. 8 (June 1860): 98.

15.

Full details are given in Christina Rossetti’s person record page (https://dvpp.uvic.ca/prs_114.html).

16.

Christina Rossetti, “Consider,” Macmillan’s Magazine 13, no. 75 (January 1866): 232.

17.

James Dawson, “Wordsworth and Hartley Coleridge: In Grasmere Churchyard, Westmoreland,” Macmillan’s Magazine 13, no. 75 (January 1866): 232.

18.

Robert Peddie, “A Voice from Beverly,” Chartist Circular 1, no. 53 (September 26, 1840): 26; and “A Voice from Beverly No. II,” Chartist Circular 1, no. 66 (December 26, 1840): 180.

19.

The series begins with “The Workhouse Nurse,” All the Year Round series 1, vol. 1, no. 1 (April 30, 1859): 20.

20.

The instalments begin with “Edith Part I.—Lost. Chapter I.—The Rector’s Child,” Once a Week series 3, vol. 6, no. 143 (September 24, 1870): 163–66.

21.

The cycle starts with “The First Night of the Year,” Woman’s World 2 (January 1889): 155.

22.

The series begins with Gerard Massey, “The Narrow Lot,” Good Words 4, no. 8 (August 1863): 547.

23.

John Campbell Shairp, “Hours on Loch Etive,” Good Words 14 (1873): 151–52.

24.

Lady E. Campbell, “Random Chords,” Good Words 18 (1877): 648.

25.

Alexander H. Japp, “Summer,” Good Words 20 (1879): 444.

26.

James Mussell, “Digitization,” in The Routledge Handbook to Nineteenth-Century British Periodicals and Newspapers, ed. Andrew King, Alexis Easley, and John Morton (London: Routledge, 2016), 28.

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