THE POETRY OF SIDNEY A. ALEXANDER by Terry L. Meyers, ed., Reviewed by Mary McCulley
 


THE POETRY OF SIDNEY A. ALEXANDER
Ed. Terry L. Meyers

Institute of English Studies, University of London, posted January 2013

Reviewed by Mary McCulley on 2014-09-15.

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In presenting the largely unknown poems of Sidney A. Alexander (1866-1948), who won the Newdigate prize for poetry as an Oxford student before becoming a clergyman, this open-access digital edition reproduces elegantly handwritten fair copies of verses written in a notebook between July 1881 and September 1890, with a printed transcript of each poem on facing pages. Meyers also provides a biographical framework for the poems in the introduction as well as material and contextual information in the appendices. Presumably, the notebook reflects Alexander's early consideration of a poetic career during his time as a student at St. Paul's through a period immediately preceding his dedication to an ecclesiastical career and marriage in 1891.

Though Alexander is noted for winning the Newdigate prize in 1887, he has been mainly recognized by historians for his religious work, especially for helping to preserve St. Paul's Cathedral in the wake of the World Wars. But the value of his religious poetry leads Meyers to argue for a renewed examination of his contribution to literature at the end of the nineteenth century. While declining to rank him with such canonized Victorian poets as Tennyson, Christina Rossetti, and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Meyers finds Alexander's poems valuable in of themselves, as well as for their cultural contribution to the religious sensibilities of the day. Especially of interest, he claims, is the juxtaposition of traditional sentiments with impressionistic observations. In reflecting the colors and shades of Aestheticism, these poems take their place with similar poems that look forward to Modernism. Nevertheless, Meyers does not argue that Alexander was a proto-Modernist. Though he aims to rescue this poet from obscurity, Meyers chiefly commends him for his charm and his position as a religious poet at the end of the nineteenth century.

After the introduction, however, Alexander's poetry speaks chiefly for itself. Meyers leaves the reproductions and transcriptions largely unencumbered with commentary, adding only a few brief contextual or explanatory footnotes. Yet in claiming that the comeliness of Alexander's poems deserves only marginal merit, Meyers may understate their potential relevance to several burgeoning fields of interest in nineteenth-century studies. Most notably, Meyers's reproduction of the notebook in its entirety (including its cover) presents it as an artifact of Victorian material culture. Beyond the notebook, Meyers includes other material records of Alexander's composing, such as a copy of the leaflet on which he wrote and revised the poem "Night's Mystery." The scanned images of the actual notebook, too, show that he used it as a scrapbook, pasting printed copies of his published poems to the cover and thus combining his private compositions with public records of his work. In providing such comprehensive access to the material features of Alexander's notebook rather than merely describing them, Meyers exemplifies choices that future editors of such works might consider to enhance our knowledge of Victorian material culture.

In identifying the poems that were published in Alexander's lifetime, this edition also helps to fertilize the flourishing field of Victorian periodical studies. The recent special edition of Victorian Poetry (Spring 2014), edited by Alison Chapman and Caley Ehnes, shows the extent to which Victorian periodicals spread poetry to the masses, creating networks between readers, writers, and critics and establishing the reputations of some of the most prominent poets of the nineteenth century. Though Meyers says little about the periodical contexts in which Alexander's poetry appeared, his edition prompts us to consider the rich variety of these contexts. For instance, while several of Alexander's poems-- "Sub Lucem," "Memories," "Song to the Winds," and "Love's Oracle"-- were published in English Illustrated, three others-- "Sea-Dreams," "It Must Be Summer," and "Winter Sunset"--appeared in Casell's, a competing illustrated magazine. Alexander's notes suggest that he aspired to be published in Cornhill and Good Words as well, perhaps indicating that he once seriously considered a poetic vocation. In addition, we learn from Meyers's footnotes that several of Alexander's poems were published in American periodicals, most likely without his knowledge, at the same time as they appeared in England. Alexander's work may accordingly be located within the burgeoning field of transatlantic periodical studies.

Thematically, this collection of poetry interweaves nature, aesthetics, and morality in ways that echo the poetry of Christina Rossetti and her nature writing in Time Flies. "A Child's Thought," for instance, suggests that every natural object or phenomenon is a painting whose divine artistry teaches humankind to be "pure and true and beautiful" (155: 15). Scholarship on Rossetti, such as Diane D'Amico's Christina Rossetti: Faith, Gender and Time (1999) and Mary Arseneau's Recovering Christina Rossetti (2004), has done much to show that her religious poetry is culturally and aesthetically significant because, rather than in spite of, the authority she gains from her faith. Though she is conservative in many ways, Rossetti's faith helps to generate the dynamism and complexity of her poetry. Likewise, further investigation of Alexander's poetry may prove to complicate Meyers's verdict: that aside from Alexander's more striking narrative and impressionistic poems his religious poetry is merely "conventional," "moral," and "platitudinous" (xx). Indeed, while much of his poetry sounds a heavily didactic tone, the suggestive links between his religious fervor, aesthetic appreciation, and social awareness (as demonstrated in his preservation of the St. Paul's) invites a more appreciative study of his work.

Besides speaking often of faith, Alexander's poems sometimes speak of and to women. Just as recent scholarship has shed light on both religious faith and feminism in the poems of Rossetti, this new edition reveals both elements in the work of Alexander, though his feminism is far less extensive. In a footnote to "In the Violet-time," published in Atalanta, Meyers explains that this periodical (named for a fleet-footed huntress) targeted young girls, a particularly interesting audience for Alexander's poetry. By itself, the poem seems merely to personify the season of spring as a young girl--but according to Kristine Moruzi in Constructing Girlhood through the Periodical Press, 1850-1915 (2012), Atalanta provided a forum for discussing girlhood and education. Given this context, the botanic imagery of the poem may be read as a commentary on female development, a symbolic move not uncommon in Victorian writing. Another poem, "A Christmas Tragedy," addresses women's issues more overtly by juxtaposing the story of the Nativity with the contemporary story of a fallen London woman who has begotten a child. Sympathizing with the woman, the speaker of the poem questions society's condemnation of her and its pharisaical justifications for refusing to give her anything beyond the mere tokens of charity. Though the poem ends on a note of Christmas cheer, it leaves the plight of the woman unrelieved and unresolved; it even predicts that someone who might read this very story in the paper might soon forget the woman involved. Thus the poem poignantly exposes the status of fallen women, critiques cultural reactions, and even warns readers against being desensitized by sensational stories.

Woven among religious and moral sentiments in these poems are threads of love and Romantic nature. For this reason the poems might be read beside those of Gerard Manley Hopkins, whose concept of religious love has been interrogated by Duc Dau in Touching God: Hopkins and Love (2009). Also, since Alexander not only salutes Keats's nightingale and Shelley's skylark but also directly invokes their Romantic forbear in a poem called "To Wordsworth," he prompts us to recognize in his poetry such quintessentially Romantic themes as nature, isolation, and childhood. In so doing, he offers further evidence of how later Victorian writers adapted the legacy of Romantic ideology and form.

What then does Alexander contribute to the poetic tradition? Following works such as Kirstie Blair's Form and Faith in Victorian Poetry and Religion (2012), Meyer's recovery of Alexander's poems answers the call to re-examine minor Victorian poets whose works contributed, in both poetic form and religious content, to the larger dialogues concerning ecclesiastic practice. Alexander's two prize-winning poems from his student days, "Sakía-Muni: The Story of Buddha," and "St. Paul at Athens," showcase his unique ways of recalling and synthesizing religious and literary traditions. "St. Paul at Athens" turns Paul into a lone, almost Romantic prophet reaching a city that is not particularly heathen but has lost its vision and glory. Like Socrates (and implicitly like Shelley), Paul draws no listeners but longs for someone to hear his truth amid the error and to see his light amid the darkness. If these early poems suggest a youthful ambition to make the world better by means of poetry, Alexander's ecclesiastical career at St. Paul's might be construed as another means of achieving the same end. In any case, his newly edited notebook gives us a window into his mind and an opening for further exploration of his work.

Mary E. McCulley is a PhD candidate in Nineteenth Century British Literature and Rhetoric at Texas Christian University, Fort Worth.