For many of us, mention of the Victorian Age of literature conjures images of Norton Anthologies used in college literature class or the thick works of Charles Dickens—images of a time that celebrated the novel and pushed poetry to the background. Certainly, anthologies devoted solely to poets born in the Victorian Era are rare. Even rarer is a thorough explanation of speculative poetry, which is what makes Voices From Fairyland: The Fantastical Poems of Mary Coleridge, Charlotte Mew, and Sylvia Townsend Warner, edited by Theodora Goss, so fascinating.
"If I were editing an anthology of fantastical poetry by women that made any claims to comprehensiveness," explains Goss in her introduction, "I would begin with Christina Rossetti" (p. 3). However, it's already obvious from the size of Voices From Fairyland that the goal is not to present a comprehensive anthology, but to focus on the three poets mentioned in the title. Goss, after introducing her choices explains why she picked them: "—because of all the poets I could have included, they are the ones who I think are the most unjustly neglected—the most talented among those whose talents have gone largely unrecognized" (p. 4). With this collection of poems and commentaries, Goss makes her case for showcasing these three women poets who were part of the late 19th century/early 20th century literary world.
Voices From Fairyland functions as a handy reference book—great for those of us not familiar with this particular period of literary speculative poetry. Each section contains poems by a specific poet and then a commentary by Goss. For example, in the section devoted to Mary Coleridge, we are introduced to such poems as "The Other Side of the Mirror" (1882) in which a woman sits in front of a looking glass and stares seeing "The vision of a woman, wild/With more than womanly despair" (p. 16). In Coleridge's poems, social issues—many women seem lost in the stuffy and oppressive Victorian Era—are disguised as fantastical stories. Goss's essay, titled "Through the Gates of Ivory and Horn: The Fantastical Poems of Mary Coleridge" confirms this thought, offering both a biography of Coleridge and a commentary. Goss concludes that Coleridge's poetry "may seem retiring because of its lyricism; entranced by its beauty, we do not at first recognize its power. But it is as powerful as Frankenstein's female monster, come to speaking life" (p. 38).
The next two sections follow the same pattern. In the poems of Charlotte Mew, we don't just see fantastical creatures, but we hear them as well, especially in such poems as "The Changeling" (1916) in which a voice says, "I shall grow up, but never grow old/I shall always, always be very cold/I shall never come back again" (p. 57). The use of anapest and the iambic line to generate this sing-song voice is highlighted by Goss, who suggests that Mew uses both because "Compared to the iamb, which goes at a walk, the anapest skips. Rather than speaking, it gives the effect of a song" (p. 66). This contrasts with iambic pentameter, often associated with the natural human speaking voice, making the voice that Mew adopts to become a "changeling" sound "completely appropriate" (p. 67).
And then there are the poems of Sylvia Townsend Warner, which, according to Goss, should "come with footnotes" (p. 95). In many ways, by tackling legends and stories from history that are very often unfamiliar to the audience, Warner's poems (she wrote later than the other two poets—her first collection was published in 1925) seem to be the most intricate of all those found in this collection. For example, "Allegra" does not personify a mythical being, but a real life person, the illegitimate daughter of Lord Bryon, who, at least in Warner's poem, seems to speak from the grave, saying, "And my companions are these/Tall stones and yew bushes" (p. 90). In this poem, Allegra, who was a source of contention while she was living, seems happy in the afterlife, only feeling a little sorry for the boy who visits her, "I pity him much, poor boy! because he is lame" (p. 91). Yet, the boy, who Goss contends is Byron himself because Byron has a clubfoot in real life (p. 100), also seems at peace with himself: "His handsome head, and gaze/Out over the plain with a look made free" (p. 91). Here, at last, at least metaphorically, father and daughter seem to share a moment of peace.
I must admit that at first I was a bit perplexed by the section devoted to Goss's own work. Goss, herself, seemed to have similar trepidation about this editorial/publisher decision, remarking "I hesitated. I did not know if it would be appropriate to place my work alongside Coleridge's, Mew's and Warner's" (p. 116). However, she goes on to note that she has written about many of the same subjects as the earlier poets. Thus, the final part of this book offers a brief sampling of the editor's own work, many poems, that yes, indeed echo the same images and themes found in the earlier pages. Some of her poems use characters from traditional fairy tales, including "The Sleeping Princess" in which Goss explores the dreams of a woman from fairy tales:
I remember violets nesting in wood-shade,
Damp leaves of violets supporting moist heads
Deep as a twilight creeping through wood-glade
On soft paws to a moss-bound bed. (p. 129)
What is most intriguing and impressive about this anthology is the sense of range and breadth it conveys. Goss has picked a wide range of poems by each poet—and while each poet may have worked with fantastical elements, much of their work is very different. In essence, Voices from Fairyland is an effective reminder that every period of literature has its writers that have been unjustly forgotten or neglected.